Editorial: Shifting EPA's role to states would be bad for Florida

The Trump administration's plan to shift much environmental responsibility to the states would be bad for Florida, where protections have been eviscerated. LARA CERRI   |   Times
The Trump administration's plan to shift much environmental responsibility to the states would be bad for Florida, where protections have been eviscerated.LARA CERRI | Times
Published March 24 2017

Polluted air and water recognize no political boundaries, which is why the federal government plays a key role in protecting the nation's natural resources. Yet the Trump administration would shift much of that responsibility to the states, which would be bad for Floridians. This state's environmental protection efforts have been eviscerated under Gov. Rick Scott, and Floridians depend on help from Washington to make up for Tallahassee's failures.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, one of several Trump appointees leading federal agencies they have despised, wants to hand much of EPA's duties to the states. The Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman recently put the administration's new approach into context. Florida's Department of Environmental Protection has shed nearly 600 jobs in six years under Scott, dropping to 2,900 from 3,500 employees. As the agency downsized, it also downsized its ambition: Enforcement caseload dropped 81 percent.

"The practical result," said Marianne Gengenbach, who was pushed out of her position as bureau chief of the DEP's office of environmental services after eight years, "is an inability to carry out the statutory duties of the agency."

A DEP spokeswoman said the agency's smaller size hadn't reduced its effectiveness, and she underscored an obligation "to being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars." But officials who worked at the DEP painted a far different picture — one where longtime employees with valuable experience were sidelined or forced out, and those who remained were left afraid or incapable of doing their jobs.

"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."

Since Scott took office, the agency's primary regulatory focus has been 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. 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 cut the permitting time down to two days, "and that's great!"

Shrinking the workforce and fast-tracking permits reflects the priorities of a governor who has consistently sided with business over the state's natural resources. Scott fought for years with the EPA over the state's clean water rules. His attempt to monetize Florida's award-winning state parks system was beaten back only after a public backlash. An analysis by an environmental watchdog group found that DEP last year opened 81 percent fewer enforcement cases than it did in 2010 and collected the smallest amount of fines in 28 years. And Scott's budget proposal for next year would reduce the DEP staff by another 38 people.

The federal government has an obvious role in policing cross-state air and water pollution. But it also is an essential backstop to states that refuse to enforce their own environmental laws and protect their natural resources. Its grants and expertise are valuable to small states and communities who could not undertake major restoration efforts on their own. The Trump administration's proposal to cut EPA by nearly a third, to $5.7 billion next year, would compound the harm from anti-environmental policies at the state and local levels. Congress should recognize that EPA needs to remain a strong player to ensure that politics does not stand in the way of Americans' access to clean air and water.