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Critics say state agency isn't policing oil industry

A watchdog group finds fault with the state's process for renewing drilling permits and fining companies.

Florida's Department of Environmental Protection is going soft on the oil industry, an environmental watchdog group says.

The group says DEP routinely lets companies drill without proper permits, leaving the public at risk from polluting and abandoned wells.

A new report called "Crude Behavior" was written anonymously by DEP employees who work for the Florida Geologic Survey and the DEP's Oil and Gas Section. It was released by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. It reviews the program that regulates inland oil drilling, not offshore wells.

The report charges that the DEP has allowed oil companies to renew drilling permits without allowing the public to comment. It rarely fines companies, although some drillers have leaked oil or left behind dangerous abandoned wells, PEER wrote.

DEP management "has never recommended or approved a fine against companies that have failed to comply with state laws and regulations," the report says. "Management has made it clear to staff that there is no violation serious enough to warrant any type of enforcement action, especially a fine, against an oil company. Deadlines for industry compliance are usually ignored.

"In regard to submitting required permit paperwork, staff have been told that pursuing legal enforcement against a violator "over some stupid forms' is out of the question. Management claims that if a company fails to abide by the application requirements, "there is nothing we can do about it.' "

In one case, PEER reported, state field inspectors who had beards worried over federal requirements that say people working around hazardous substances should be clean-shaven. Instead of telling the inspectors to shave, PEER wrote, DEP management just told them to avoid inspecting the plants.

The DEP regulates companies that want to drill on land in Florida. In the past 50 years, companies have drilled about 1,100 oil wells in Florida, the report said. So far, most of the oil in the state comes from two places: the Jay Oil field, near Pensacola, and about a dozen oil fields near Fort Myers.

DEP Secretary David Struhs said Tuesday he hadn't read the report. After he reads it, he said, he will decide whether to address the allegations internally, to call in the state's inspector general or to enlist the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The two men who head the DEP offices in question, Florida Geologic Survey chief Walt Schmidt and Oil and Gas Section chief David Curry, said the report appears to be the work of a disgruntled employee who left the agency.

Curry said he favors a cooperative approach with industry to get the best environmental protection.

"Usually we don't have to go to court or impose a fine. Usually just telling them, "Look, you have to do this or that' is enough to get them to change," Curry said. "We don't want to act like the IRS or a runaway agency or accuse people of bad things. We avoid developing situations where it looks like there is going to be a conflict."

PEER set up shop in Florida three years ago and has released reports that allege lax enforcement in the state's wetlands program and in its Pensacola office.

"We've been critical about DEP's lax enforcement in the past," said PEER national director Rob Perks. "But here we're talking about a program with no enforcement."