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An environmental charge

Published Oct. 12, 2005

State law enforcers have found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the Panhandle district office of the Department of Environmental Regulation (DER), but their report is far from encouraging. For years, to hear some current and former employees tell it, district manager Robert V. Kriegel has dispensed environmental permits based on political and not biological science.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) itself, in concluding no criminal laws were violated, suggested: "His administrative actions dealing with questionable permitting may warrant a complete management review of the Northwest District by DER."

From all indications, DER Secretary Carol Browner, who was named to the post 21 months ago, has made such a review. She has ordered Kriegel to do something any competent environmental regulator should do _ pay attention to the scientific staff. She also has told him she will accept no regulatory compromises, that his office will strictly follow the intent of laws designed to protect the environment.

Browner's actions may have begun to address the problems in the Northwest District office, but they have not removed the doubts about Kriegel. The FDLE investigation, which included interviews with five current and nine former DER employees, uncovered numerous examples where the recommendations of staff scientists were overturned by Kriegel and his top lieutenants. In August 1991, Kriegel received a letter from a legislator questioning a $12,700 fine for a wastewater treatment plant in Santa Rosa County; the fine later was reduced to $5,000. In 1988, Kriegel initially recommended wide-ranging variances in water quality standards for a permit requested by Champion International Paper Co.; administrative hearings required more stringent regulation. Kriegel also overruled his staff on wetlands destruction permits for the Deerpoint Cove development in Gulf Breeze County.

Kriegel attributes some of his problems to a management style that created dissent among staff people who felt their views weren't being heard, and he says he has changed. That may be true. But what is less clear is whether a regulator who has been so repeatedly challenged by conservation groups, who has been known to reverse the findings of his scientific staff and who worked so comfortably under the anti-regulatory policies of former Secretary Dale Twachtmann can work for a DER that has reclaimed environmental protection as its primary mission.

FDLE found no reason to believe Kriegel was breaking any laws, but its findings are hardly an endorsement. The more serious question about Kriegel is one not of criminal charges but of environmental ones.