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Watchdogs slam DEP choice

A pair of environmental groups are complaining to federal officials that the shipyard executive Gov. Rick Scott picked to lead the Department of Environment Protection cannot oversee a program that regulates how much industrial pollution can be dumped into the state's waters.

The reason: Herschel Vinyard's previous employer, a Jacksonville shipyard, held just such a pollution permit. They say putting him in charge of the program to control it and other polluters is against the law.

At issue is something called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. In Florida, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows the DEP to issue the permits.

But federal law says anyone overseeing the permits cannot have received a "significant portion of his income directly or indirectly from permit holders or applicants for a permit." In this case, that means more than 10 percent over the previous two years.

Last month Scott tapped Vinyard, director of business operation for BAE Systems Southeast Shipyards, to head up the DEP.

But BAE Systems Southeast Shipyards holds federal permits for its treated wastewater, said Jerry Phillips of the Florida chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER.

"This law exists because Congress did not want our national clean water safety net co-opted by corporate infiltration," said Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney.

PEER and the Clean Water Network have filed a petition asking the EPA to take action on the matter. If the EPA agrees that this is a violation, it could withhold federal grants or other financial assistance to the state, or it could revoke Florida's power to issue water pollution permits.

Another option, said Clean Water Network's Linda Young: Scott could appoint someone "more appropriate."

When Scott named Vinyard to the position, he highlighted Vinyard's work on the shipyard's permit.

"As an example of Vinyard's focus on environmental responsibility and effective business practices, he provided counsel to BAE Systems in their recent, successful efforts to remove its treated wastewater outfall from the St. Johns River," Scott said in a January news release. "That wastewater is now being used for irrigation purposes and eliminates a discharge to one of Florida's most significant water bodies."

Vinyard also has served as chairman of the Shipbuilders Council of America, which among other goals tries to get the EPA to lighten the regulatory load of its members.

In other words, Scott "has appointed a man whose professional career has been dedicated to ensuring that the very regulations that he would now oversee are significantly weakened," the petition to the EPA states.

A request to DEP officials for a comment on the petition regarding Vinyard drew no response Tuesday.

The DEP has not found any pollution violations or pursued any enforcement actions against his shipbuilding company in the past five years.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

Watchdogs slam DEP choice 02/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 9:21pm]
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