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DEP probe to examine control of oil industry

Florida's top environmental chief is calling in his inspector general to investigate charges that regulators are going soft on the oil industry.

"We don't even want to tolerate the perception that there's any wrongdoing, and if there is, we want to deal with it swiftly," Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs said Wednesday. "My hope is that we'll find everything in order."

The allegations surfaced in a report called "Crude Behavior," written anonymously by DEP employees who work for the Florida Geologic Survey and the DEP's Oil and Gas Section.

The report, released by the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says the DEP lets companies drill inland wells without proper permits, and does little to protect the public from abandoned wells that are polluting underground drinking water supplies.

Wednesday, Struhs said the two men who run those programs _ Florida Geologic Survey chief Walt Schmidt and Oil and Gas Section chief David Curry _ volunteered to go on paid leave for two weeks while DEP Inspector General Pinky Hall investigates.

"This is not a disciplinary action,' Struhs said. "They volunteered to go on leave. That way the inspector general can come in, have full access to all the files and all the employees. It was something they felt would help clear their records."

Curry and Schmidt contend that the report is the work of a disgruntled employee who left the agency. But the watchdog group that released "Crude Behavior" said several employees provided information about irregularities in the DEP's oversight of oil drillers. The report lists many incidents in which DEP inspectors found violations, but said managers discouraged them from taking enforcement action against the companies.

Oil companies have drilled about 1,100 wells in Florida in the past 50 years, PEER's report said. So far, the report said, most of the oil comes from two places: the Jay Oil field, near Pensacola, and oil fields near Fort Myers.

Rob Perks, national field director for PEER, took a dim view of Struhs' decision to send in Inspector General Hall, who has been with the agency for many years.

"As far as we're concerned, the inspector general's office is where inquiries go to die," Perks said. "We think someone new and impartial should be involved."

Since it set up shop in Florida three years ago, the Washington, D.C.-based PEER has released a number of "white papers" critical of DEP, reports it says were written with the help of anonymous DEP employees. One charged lax enforcement of state wetlands permitting, and another criticized the DEP's Pensacola office for going easy on polluters.

Struhs said the investigation "will be good for the agency and good for PEER." He said he expects a full report by the end of the month.