Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Florida Lemon Law Should Apply To Claimed Benefits Of $2 Billion Everglades Reservoir ... by gimleteye

On March 17, 2017 the Tampa Bay Times asked the question, "If the EPA goes away, is the state up to the job of protecting Florida's environment?" The appropriate context, a year later, is to understand yesterday's celebrated announcement by the South Florida Water Management District to the state legislature and governor of plans to create a massive mini-Lake Okeechobee, costing $1.5 to $2 billion. The question for voters and taxpayers: what agency will be able to ground-truth whether the reservoir will work as advertised; to solve the massive pollution of Florida's waterways and Everglades caused primarily by the mismanagement of Lake Okeechobee to benefit Big Sugar.

One thing is for certain: the reservoir's benefits to Big Sugar are guaranteed. Back to the question of accountability.

Under normal circumstances, the US Environmental Protection Agency would be the watchdog over the state. Within the Trump administration, EPA chief Scott Pruitt (described here as "... the alpha hire in an administration* that has put together an environmental team with the basic attitude of a chainsaw) moved with alarming speed to undo the agency's core missions of protecting the nation's air and water and natural resources. The EPA is a pale shadow and hobbled by the evacuation of senior staff.

It is no surprise to Trump critics that "dismantling the administrative state" revolved first and foremost around the EPA. Despite the agency's minuscule contribution to the federal budget, the teardown of the EPA is the biggest point of enthusiasm among the wealthiest Trump supporters.

We know better in Florida. Without the EPA and federal laws to guide the agency in protecting the environment and the public interest, there would NO backstop to the state or to Big Sugar, the cartel that controls the state legislature. This isn't idle speculation. It has been proven in federal court decisions where environmentalists FOUGHT EPA and won major judgments that proved, by the way, immune to tampering by the Big Sugar controlled state legislature or executive branch.

This is an important point. Environmentalists sued and won against the EPA for the agency's failure to hold the state of Florida accountable to the law.

The Tampa Bay Times report asks, "Is the state up to the job of protecting Florida's environment?" If you ask Gov. Rick Scott and his biggest backers from Big Sugar to the utility industries, the answer is unequivocally "yes". Moreover, they lambast "federal overreach" in a clarion call to campaign contributors and to an activist conservative judiciary.

The point of dismantling the EPA is that there will be no one to hold the state accountable for saying whatever it wants and doing whatever it wants. That fits the ambition of polluters, perfectly. In fact, Big Sugar is so confident it has already sparked rumbling about revisiting those federal court victories won by environmentalists.

Trump thinks, no big deal. His dream is to return the United States to the 1950s and 1960s when regulations weren't so "burdensome". So what if a few rivers caught on fire from pollution? So what if industries treated public waterways like their private sewers. From the point of view of cartels like Big Sugar, it doesn't get better than this. Watch this video beginning with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) questioning Trump's top environmental pick, Kathleen Harnett White, to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

White's testimony was so pathetic, she withdrew from consideration but Trump just just renominated her.

Will Florida voters wake up, in time? November 2018 is the next benchmark for that question.

If the EPA goes away, is the state up to the job of protecting Florida's environment?
Craig Pittman
Published: March 14, 2017
Updated: March 17, 2017 at 11:25 PM

The leader of President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, wants to hand much of its duties back to the states. That would put the job of protecting Florida's natural bounty almost entirely in the hands of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

That raises the question: Is DEP up to the job?

In the six years since Rick Scott became governor in 2011, the size of the state agency charged with protecting the environment has shrunk by more than 600 employees, dropping from about 3,500 to 2,900.

"The agency has been consistently downsized," said Marianne Gengenbach, who was pushed out of her position as bureau chief of the DEP's office of environmental services after eight years with the agency. "The reported purpose was to create efficiency, but the practical result is an inability to carry out the statutory duties of the agency."

Many of those ousted were viewed as the top experts in their fields, said former DEP employees, and their dismissal left those who were spared beset by anxiety and paranoia.

"Some people had 20 to 25 years in; knowledgeable people, people who never had a problem," said Connie Bersok, the agency's senior wetlands expert, who retired at the end of February after 30 years. "It almost seemed like a culling of the people who knew too much."

Many weren't replaced. However, a DEP spokeswoman said the agency's smaller size hasn't reduced its effectiveness.

"We continue to focus on restoring and protecting Florida's natural resources and enhancing its ecosystems," spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said.

While the agency is focused on protecting the environment, she said, "we are also committed to being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, improving processes and increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of our operations."

Scott, a Trump supporter, is satisfied with the agency's operation, and with the new EPA boss, according to press secretary Lauren Schenone.

"The governor looks forward to a productive working relationship between Florida's DEP and the federal EPA and continuing to protect Florida's pristine environment for generations to come," she said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

When his last DEP secretary, Jon Steverson, resigned in January to take a job with a law firm that has DEP contracts, Scott said: "I am proud of the tremendous and historic strides we have made toward safeguarding Florida's natural resources during his time at DEP."

• • •

Not only has the agency shrunk, it has also been pressured to speed up how quickly it issues permits for filling in wetlands and dumping pollution into the state's waterways.

During Jeb Bush's term as governor, which ended in 2007, the average time for issuing a DEP permit was 44 days. In 2014, Scott boasted the agency had "successfully reduced its environmental permitting time down to just two days, and that's great!"

Since Scott was sworn in, the agency's primary regulatory focus has been on speeding up the issuing of permits, said Janet Llewelyn, a top state water policy and permitting expert who was pushed out last year after 32 years.

"The quality of the permit review was sometimes sacrificed as a result," she said.

At the same time it was shrinking, the agency drastically scaled back its enforcement of pollution laws.

DEP's new attitude was spelled out in a 2011 memo to the staff from Jeff Littlejohn, the consulting engineer who was picked as the new deputy secretary in charge of regulation.

"Where noncompliance occurs, despite your best efforts at education and outreach," he wrote, "your first consideration should be whether you can bring about a return to compliance without enforcement."

So instead of hammering polluters, DEP staffers were to send out "compliance assistance letters," offering to show businesses how to get back into compliance.

As a result, last year the agency opened 81 percent fewer enforcement cases than it did in 2010 and collected the smallest amount of fines in 28 years, according to an analysis by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental watchdog group.

"The DEP is just a shadow of its former self," said Jerry Phillips, a former DEP attorney who now heads up PEER's Florida office. "It's a mess."

DEP officials contend that what counts is that Florida businesses now have a record-high compliance rate with the state's pollution laws.

• • •

When Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, testified at his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing last month to become the new EPA administrator, he repeatedly said he believed environmental protection was a job best left to the states, not the federal government.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, has gone him one better, filing a one-sentence bill to abolish the EPA in 2018.

"I think the states are better positioned to assess their environmental assets and often they are more nimble" at protecting them, he said in an interview Friday.

However, Gaetz recently told the Times that the DEP isn't ready to take over for the EPA "at their current funding level." He wants to see some of the EPA's $9 billion budget spread out among the states, including Florida.

Former state employees say the problem with DEP taking on the EPA's duties go beyond just funding.

The shrinking of the DEP began shortly after Scott took office and hasn't stopped. A chunk of the staff, 150 sworn officers who enforced environmental laws, were transferred to the state wildlife commission. Then came other departures, many of the people over the age 50.

Repeated cutbacks have left the survivors "afraid to do the right thing, because doing the right thing could cause them to be fired," Gengenbach said.

Over and over, DEP employees said they saw longtime colleagues escorted out of the building, often with no explanation, recalled Bersok. She kept a journal of everything she saw at the agency over her 30 years.

"It certainly does not boost morale," she said. "It makes people nervous. You don't know who's going to be next. It does engender a sort of paranoia."

For instance, Gengenbach said, she and a lot of other employees were shocked last year to see Llewellyn, the water policy expert, let go after more than three decades.

"If it could happen to someone who's that good, and never got into trouble, it could happen to anyone," she said.

Llewellyn said she was never given an explanation for why she was told to leave.

"I wish I could tell you the reason," she said. "I don't know why."

The purge hit the state's prize-winning park system hard. Since Scott took office, most of its leadership has been booted out or demoted. In one day in 2015, two top administrators were shown the door and told not to return.

"They did it just to make a statement and to make the staff fearful," said one of the two administrators, Dana C. Bryan, who was ushered out a month shy of his intended retirement. He was told to spend the month waiting at home for a special assignment that never arrived.

The parks management team that won all those awards has been "dismantled," Bryan said. "The park service that was so good probably won't ever be the same again."

In 2012, Scott did one of his "Let's Get to Work" days as a park ranger at Hillsborough River State Park. He took the occasion to praise the parks as an economic engine for the state and noted, "A healthy environment makes for a healthy economy."

• • •

Bersok wasn't fired or forced out. But she was suspended from her job in 2012 after she refused to go along with a wetlands permit that did not meet state requirements.

Those who sought the permit had the ear of one of the agency's recently appointed deputy secretaries, and he intervened in the case, "which was not normal," Bersok recalled.

Bersok refused to back down. She was suspended because her superiors thought she might leak information to reporters about the permit. She was ultimately reinstated, and a judge later ruled that she was right about the permit and blasted DEP officials for ignoring her.

Paranoia about the media was another hallmark of the past six years, Bersok said.

"When I first started, if the press called, you could talk to the press, you just had to document it for your boss," Bersok said.

"Then it became: You had to get permission first, but you could still talk.

"Then it became: The press office would approve of anyone talking with a reporter, but they had to be on the line.

"And now that's changed to: You do not talk to the press. As a result, a lot of the information that's expressed to the press wasn't much information at all."

That, in turn, has led to even more paranoia among the staff. Being afraid, Llewellyn said, isn't conducive to enforcing the state's pollution rules.

"When people feel anxious," she said, "they're less likely to do anything that would make them stand out."

Scott's budget proposal for next year recommends reducing the DEP staff by another 38 people. Bersok said she has been told her job is one that's being phased out.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.

1 comment:

Gayle Ryan said...

Sharing on Facebook - but I am in Facebook JAIL until 1/22 so I cannot share on all 30 of my pages......we are in big trouble in the USA - calls for Impeachment and nothing less - GOPs are retiring left & right so we need all Democrats to Vote BLUE in the elections!! Criminal that we have to fight the people that we pay their salaries with our taxes!!