Florida’s environmental laws are being enforced less and less under Gov. Rick Scott’s pick – a private company attorney, Secretary Herschel Vinyard – to lead the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). According to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), since Scott took office and Vinyard took over the DEP in 2011, “enforcement has dropped by just about every measure.”
“There is nothing more than that department [turning] a blind eye, looking the other way when these facilities pollute,” Jerry Phillips, director of the Florida PEER group, told the AP. “The message is out to the employees that they should be aggressive in this area. We talk to these employees, we hear from them and I haven’t heard from a single employee that enforcement is better now under Herschel Vinyard. It’s just the opposite,” he said.
This year, Scott signed into law House Bill 999, an environmental permitting bill, along with its counterpart, Senate Bill 1808, dealing with water quality standards, and Senate Bill 682, dealing with coal ash waste. The controversial HB 999 relaxed environmental regulations on businesses within the state of Florida.
The bill incited strong opposition from Florida environmental groups. In 2006, the Florida DEP went through about 38,000 permit applications a year from developers, a number that now averages about 19,000 annually, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The number of “enforcement actions” against polluters has also dropped significantly, from 2,289 in 2010 to 799 last year.
In May, DEP attorneys Christopher Byrd and Kelly Russel were fired based on a purported lack of need. However, state Senator Darren Soto (D) questioned their forced departures, saying he believed the terminations to be “suspicious given the department’s ‘cozy’ relationship with development interests under Scott.”
Last year, the DEP laid off 58 longtime employees at the same time that Vinyard “installed a number of new people in the agency’s upper ranks whose prior experience was working as engineers or consultants for companies the DEP regulates,” the Tampa Bay Times reports.
Charles Kovach, a former DEP employee who worked for the agency for 17 years before being laid off last year, believes the layoffs were part of a plan to loosen regulations on polluting industries. “I’ve seen the way politics has influenced that agency in the past, but never like this,” Kovach told the Times. “It’s not about compliance (with the rules). It’s about making things look like they’re compliant.”
Vinyard spent ten years as an engineer who specialized in getting clients environmental permits. According to the Times, “Another engineer who worked for developers heads up the [DEP] division of water resources. A lawyer who helped power plants get their permits is now in charge of air pollution permitting. An engineering company lobbyist became a deputy director overseeing water and sewer facilities.”
The DEP’s chief operating officer is a former chemical company and real estate executive.
The DEP claims that the drop in enforcement actions is a result of their focus on prevention. “Over the last two years, compliance rates have improved dramatically, resulting in a drop of enforcement cases and associated fines,” DEP spokeswoman Reena O’Brien told the Miami Herald. “It is clear by this report that PEER shows a lack of understanding of the fundamental goals of this agency.”
But PEER director Jerry Phillips stands by his group’s findings. “If you are to believe that all of these facilities suddenly decided that with Rick Scott and Herschel Vinyard in that they were suddenly going to comply with their permits is laughable,” he said. “They’ve been very open that they’ve been trying to basically kill enforcement and that’s what they’re achieving.”