State Fines for Even Serious Hazardous Waste Violations Are Evaporating
Tallahassee — Laws protecting Florida from illegal discharges of hazardous wastes have become a virtual dead letter under the Scott administration, according to a new analysis of enforcement files released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Even dangerous and repeat violations draw either no enforcement action at all or fines that are dramatically below assessment guidelines.
Among the roughly 75,000 facilities currently permitted by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) are hazardous waste operators. DEP regulates these hazardous waste operators under federal requirements and with federal funding.
Under Governor Rick Scott, the number of hazardous waste violation cases brought has plummeted by more than 80% and the level of fines assessed has dropped by more than 90%. Scott’s DEP claims that it is concentrating on “bad actors” but an examination of enforcement files in significant noncompliance cases reveals that DEP –
- Is not recouping the “economic benefit of noncompliance” – the profits reaped by cheating – it is supposed to. DEP staff need top level clearance to levy this assessment but it is not forthcoming;
- Improperly ignores records of past violations in levying ultra-low or no fines; and
- Diverts repeat and serious violators to “compliance education” in lieu of enforcement.
“Governor Scott’s policies have created an unmistakably powerful economic incentive to pollute in Florida,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney who analyzed both actual case files and statewide data. “The case files depict a bureaucratic obstacle course that precludes meaningful enforcement action, no matter how serious or chronic the violation.”
The PEER report looks at major hazardous waste handlers, including industrial, medical and even military facilities. In all cases, there are inspection reports of serious violations from practices such as mixing dangerous, incompatible chemicals, unlabeled barrels of toxic agents, illegal storage of hazardous materials, as well as direct discharges into soil and water. In each case, however, DEP either takes no enforcement or issues a fine that is only pennies on the dollar for what should be assessed.
The Scott administration claims that there are so few enforcement actions because it has achieved nearly universal environmental compliance in the regulated community. In addition, DEP has stopped taking any action for what it deems mere “recordkeeping” offenses. Yet, the PEER analysis of case files shows patterns of flagrant and significant violations, many involving direct threats to public health and safety.
“One would have to be wearing beer goggles in order to read these inspection reports as evidence of compliance,” added Phillips, noting that the files show the dizzying variety of methods DEP employs to preclude or severely discount penalties. “Rather than environmental success stories, the enforcement files look as if they were composed by the proverbial three monkeys who could see, hear or speak no evil.”
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals, working to protect the environment.