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Fraud undermining tank cleanups

Contaminated underground sites from Pensacola to Key West may languish in the coming years because state environmental officials need to spend cleanup money on looking for fraud in a state program.

The leaking underground tanks cleanup program, launched with good intentions more than a decade ago and funded with a tax paid at the gas pump, will likely slow to a crawl during the next six years.

But backers of a new plan hope the state can ferret out waste and fraud that have plagued the program, saving tax dollars in the long run.

In a new proposal, the state Department of Environmental Protection wants to use about $110-million during the next six years to check up on 19,000 claims that cleanup contractors made with the state.

Every county in Florida has at least one site contaminated by a petroleum leak. Under the program, private contractors are hired to clean up the leaks, and the state reimburses them. Although many contractors are legitimate, several state investigations have found fraud in the program, including overpayments and bogus charges.

The latest discovery, part of a criminal investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, involves a company that tried to bill the state for millions and never did any cleanup work.

Now, the DEP wants to use the $110-million _ starting with $20-million next year _ to hire 49 people to audit old claims and physically check cleanup sites, said Mike Sole, who heads the DEP's underground tanks program. The DEP has never checked the sites to see if the work was done, even though it paid millions to contractors.

The DEP also will use the money to hire outside auditors to review the claims, Sole said.

Many state leaders, including Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, and Comptroller Robert Milligan, have called for the program to be shut down. But Milligan, Latvala, DEP Secretary Virginia Wetherell, and FDLE Commissioner James T. Moore worked out the latest solution over the past several weeks.

Since the DEP isn't asking for any new money, lawmakers will review the idea as part of routine budget approval this spring.