9 Investigates claims that DEP's protection of environment on the decline

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. —

According to critics of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, the department is not protecting the environment, and they said they have the numbers to prove it.

According to a study by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Florida’s DEP has issued fewer civil penalties and undertaken fewer enforcement actions in the last five years.  The group says the data show a steady decline at the department charged with protecting the states vast natural resources.

 “When I was first hired at DEP we had a very robust enforcement program,” said former DEP attorney Christopher Byrd.  “I was hired in the Water Enforcement Division, and we had experts in all of the divisions throughout the State of Florida, each district had experts in the field following up on permits and doing monitoring.”

Byrd, who left DEP in 2013 says in the five years he worked for the department he noticed a steady decline in active enforcement.
“Rather than enforcing the law and making sure violators don’t continue to violate the law moving forward, they are using state resources to make sure those violators come into compliance without any kind of enforcement or incentive to not violate in the future,” said Byrd.

According to the PEER Report, DEP’s total assessments (fines) in 2013 were $1.4 million compared to $12.3 million in 2007, a decline of 88 percent in five years.  The report goes on to show a decline in enforcement actions by DEP with, according to PEER, “210 new enforcement actions in 2013” an 83 percent decline from the “1,526 cases DEP opened in 2008.”

“During the last three years, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has made great strides toward protecting Florida’s environment,” said DEP Press Secretary Tiffany Cowie in a written statement to Eyewitness News.  “Compliance rates across the department’s regulatory programs are at an all-time high of 96-percent. That can be attributed to an uptick in outreach efforts to businesses. In 2013 alone, DEP participated in more than 5,800 events in an effort to increase compliance rates, resulting in greater environmental protection.”

The department maintains it has taken a more proactive approach to enforcement, by working with companies to prevent pollution before it happens.

“We believe in prevention: what we can do to prevent impacts to our natural resources. We work with companies allowing them to maintain compliance. If they try to bend or break the rules, we’ll take action and use every tool at our disposal for holding bad actors accountable,” said Cowie.

“The flaw in that argument is assuming that the public and industry comes to DEP before they act,” said Byrd.
 
One such incident occurred in Volusia County in 2013 when an anonymous tip led DEP to Thatcher Chemical.  According to DEP’s inspection after the tip, Thatcher duped hundreds of thousands of pounds of chemical sludge in the wooded area behinds its DeLand facility.  In its investigation DEP estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 pounds of ferric sulfate sludge was dumped behind the facility as far back as 2010.

Critics of DEP said incidents like Thatcher show how a “hands off” approach to regulation can have serious consequences since the reported dumping wasn’t discovered until an anonymous tip was called in to the department.

“People come here to see the lushness and the clean water,” said Marjorie Holt of the Central Florida Sierra Club.  “It takes a good regulatory agency to be hands on.”

DEP has also been forced to do more with less.  In 2013 DEP’s budget was $1.2 billion, down from a record high of $3.5 billion in 2006.  In fact, DEP’s 2013-14 budget of $1.2 billion is lower than its budget of $1.5 billion in 1999-2000.