Gov. Scott's wildlife appointee has history of environmental infractions

Gov. Rick Scott, left, chose paving contractor Charles W. “Chuck” Roberts III, to serve on the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Gov. Rick Scott, left, chose paving contractor Charles W. “Chuck” Roberts III, to serve on the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

Gov. Rick Scott faced a choice. He had to fill a seat on the state's wildlife commission, and 20 people had applied.

Two had previously served on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. A third was president of an influential sportsman's group. Among the rest were a vice president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the operator of an animal-rescue group and a former Humane Society investigator.

Scott passed over those applicants to pick Charles W. "Chuck" Roberts III, a Panhandle paving contractor whose company has on several occasions run afoul of state environmental regulations.

"He was selected because Governor Scott and his appointments staff felt he was the best qualified for the position," explained Scott's press secretary, Lane Wright.

Roberts, 58, is an avid angler and quail hunter, the owner of a bird-hunting plantation and president of C.W. Roberts Contracting since 1976. The company's website boasts about its many government contracts for building roads and prisons. Its most high-profile project was Panama City's recently completed $325 million airport.

Roberts said when he was interviewed by Scott and the governor's staff, no one asked about his company's history of environmental infractions, including one chemical spill that required an extensive cleanup. He said he did not understand why that should have come up.

"I don't see why that should be involved with fish and wildlife," Roberts said.

The paving company's website features a statement about its core values.

"From the beginning, C.W. Roberts Contracting Inc. has held themselves to a higher standard than their competitors, resulting in a solid and respected reputation that precedes the organization," the website says.

But there are other things in the records of the state Department of Environmental Protection. DEP officials turned over their reports on C.W. Roberts to the Times, but Roberts said they also alerted him to the newspaper's public records request.

The records show that several of Roberts' facilities failed to comply with the state's environmental rules, but in several incidents there's no record of the company facing any penalties.

At the C.W. Roberts plant in Liberty County, a storage tank has leaked diesel fuel into the ground twice. Cleaning up after the second incident, in 1991, required digging up 98 tons of contaminated soil and carting it away for disposal. State records do not indicate whether Roberts' company was fined.

In 2006, an inspection of the same plant found it was pumping out more air pollution than its permit allowed. This time the company paid a $500 fine.

Inspectors checking the company's Citrus County plant in 2003 and twice in 2004 found so many problems that they declared it to be "major out-of-compliance" with the rules.

The company wasn't using the proper kind of storage tank for its chemicals, DEP records show. It had failed to conduct its own monthly inspections, as required by law. It had failed to mark how full the tank was. It had failed to provide a backup system in case of a spill. The DEP fined Roberts' company $3,725.

A 2006 inspection of the company's Bay County operation found that a tank component that could cause a discharge of pollutants was dripping and needed repair. This year, the plant was found out of compliance again for having cracks in a berm floor. There was no indication of a punishment.

And at the Panama City airport, which opened last year, DEP officials discovered Roberts' company had built a parking lot without getting a permit outlining how it would deal with stormwater runoff. However, state officials decided the lack of a permit was the fault of Roberts' client, the local airport authority, rather than the contractor.

The Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport was built 20 miles north of the city on 4,000 acres donated by a major developer, the St. Joe Co., in hopes that it will stimulate development of thousands of acres around it also owned by St. Joe. A federal audit of improper Federal Aviation Administration payments put at the top of the list $7 million spent on building the airport. A Bay County grand jury spent a year investigating allegations of waste, fraud and abuse in the airport's construction, concluding that "mistakes were made" but no laws were broken.

Now the airport authority is embroiled in a lawsuit with Roberts and the primary contractor, Phoenix Construction, over who's responsible for millions in cost overruns, including the rebuilding of a $5 million stormwater pond after the DEP fined the airport thousands of dollars for improper handling of runoff that polluted nearby creeks.

Roberts was hailed as an environmental hero during last year's oil spill when two employees proposed spreading hay around the Gulf of Mexico to absorb the oil, then have shrimp boats scoop up the saturated hay.

Roberts offered to put boats into the gulf right away to get started, which the Huffington Post website called "just the type of heroism the Gulf Coast and America needs right now." However, DEP officials turned down the offer, noting that the hay would not soak up the weathered oil and would cause more problems than it would solve.

Roberts is not the first person in a development-related business to sit on the wildlife commission. During Charlie Crist's term as governor, every appointee had a connection to development, including the one Roberts is replacing, Miami developer and lobbyist Rodney Barreto.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

Gov. Scott's wildlife appointee has history of environmental infractions 10/09/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 10, 2011 6:49pm]

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