DeSantis signs tougher rules on pollutants, but do they go far enough?

Some environmental groups, however, were critical of the Clean Waterways Act, supporting stronger measures during the 2020 legislative session and calling the bill a “missed opportunity.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference Tuesday, June 30, 2020.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference Tuesday, June 30, 2020. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published June 30, 2020

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Tuesday measures that include bigger fines for dumping pollutants into waterways and new rules for septic tanks and agricultural runoff, though environmentalists said the rules don’t go far enough.

One of the measures (HB 1091) makes numerous changes in the amounts and duration of penalties for violating environmental laws. The other bill (SB 712) is based off recommendations from the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force and has been dubbed the “Clean Waterways Act.” Both take effect Wednesday.

“All these changes are really a strong step forward for Florida’s environment. Certainly, one of the most significant pieces of substantive legislation in quite some time,” DeSantis said before signing the bills while at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach.

The bill signings came a day after DeSantis approved a new $92.2 billion state budget that included $322 million for Everglades restoration, $50 million for natural springs, $25 million to fight algal blooms and red tide, and $160 million for statewide water-quality improvements. But he also vetoed about $1 billion from the budget, including cutting about $60 million in water and wastewater projects.

“It’s important to get the funding like we did last year and this year, but you also want to have good policy guiding that so that the dollars actually make a positive impact,” DeSantis said.

However, several environmental groups were critical of the Clean Waterways Act and had urged DeSantis to veto it. They supported stronger measures during the 2020 legislative session and called the bill a “missed opportunity.”

“The Clean Waterways Act had a promising start, but as it moved through the policymaking process it was watered down to the point of being ineffective,” Florida Conservation Voters Executive Director Aliki Moncrief said Tuesday. “Even official Senate staff analysis admits that many of the rules proposed in this legislation cannot be implemented without further approval of the Legislature, leaving intended water protections at the will of future politicians.”

Moncrief added the law limits local communities from adopting measures to protect their waterways.

The bill prohibits local governments from providing legal rights to any plant, animal, body of water or other part of the natural environment unless authorized by the state.

In a news release, the Florida Springs Council, Sierra Club and St. Johns Riverkeeper accused DeSantis of ignoring the task force recommendations, such as “the development and implementation of a septic system inspection and monitoring program.”

“The bill fails to require polluters to reduce the damage they cause our waters enough to bring them back to health,” Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen said in a prepared statement. “SB 712 is all promise and no delivery. It preserves the Florida status quo: Pretend that the requirements in law are working when they’re not, and kick the can down the road.”

Jen Lomberk, vice-chair of Waterkeepers Florida, said the measure “just doubles down on the same broken water regulatory system that got us into this mess in the first place.”

But Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said the “comprehensive legislation” is the product of groups such as agriculture, utilities and homeowners working together.

“Don’t point a finger, but ask people to come together and to do more now for Florida’s environment,” Valenstein said. “Again, a simple concept, but it simply had not been tried. And it certainly worked out.”

Among the act’s changes: regulation of the 2.6 million septic tanks in the state will be moved from the Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection; utilities will be required to develop inspection, maintenance and replacement plans for their wastewater systems; and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs must perform on-site verification of agricultural “best management practices” every two years.

The other bill signed Tuesday increases most penalties by 50 percent for polluters. Also, the length of time certain penalties can be imposed will run until the violations are resolved by order or judgment. The duration change involves declaring each day an offense occurs as a separate offense.

House sponsor Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, argued waterways face an “existential crisis” and the intent of the law is to prevent illegal releases from being considered a “cost of doing business.”

Fine unsuccessfully sought to raise the fines last year, a proposal that was aimed at Brevard County for a 2017 sewage spill into the Indian River Lagoon that lasted 35 days. Fine’s solution last year was to impose a $2 fee for every gallon of raw sewage released.

DeSantis in September called for a 50 percent increase in fines as part of his environmental wish list for the 2020 legislative session, which began in January and ended in March.

He labeled the existing structure a “slap on the wrist,” noting penalties for sewage spills had been capped at $10,000 a day while pollutants were flowing.

“Most of the penalties that we have in law have basically been there for 20 years, and they really didn’t pack the punch that they needed to,” DeSantis said Tuesday. “This bill not only increases civil and administrative penalties by 100 percent per sanitary sewer overflows, and 50 percent across the board for all environmental, all other environmental crimes, it also authorizes the Department of Environmental Protection to assess daily penalties until a violation is addressed.”