Scott promised to be the greenest governor, but wound up labeled 'Red Tide Rick'

From left, Michael Castle, a park ranger at Hillsborough River State Park and Florida Governor Rick Scott check to see if a campground at the park is ADA compliant. Governor Scott spent Thursday, July 19, 2012 touring Hillsborough River State Park to see what a day in the life of a park ranger is like. His administration subsequently tried to make changes, including adding hunting and cattle grazing to the award-winning parks. [Times files]
From left, Michael Castle, a park ranger at Hillsborough River State Park and Florida Governor Rick Scott check to see if a campground at the park is ADA compliant. Governor Scott spent Thursday, July 19, 2012 touring Hillsborough River State Park to see what a day in the life of a park ranger is like. His administration subsequently tried to make changes, including adding hunting and cattle grazing to the award-winning parks. [Times files]
Published October 28 2018
Updated October 29 2018

The last time Gov. Rick Scott ran for office, when he was seeking re-election in 2014, he vowed to be the greenest governor Florida has ever seen.

"Florida’s natural beauty is a big reason why this is the best state in the country to call home," he said.

But his campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Bill Nelson has been haunted by scenes of environmental disaster from around the state: Gulf and Atlantic beaches covered with dead marine life thanks to Red Tide. Lake Okeechobee erupting with massive amounts of toxic blue-green algae. Both algae blooms damaging the state’s tourist economy.

Instead of hailing Scott as the greenest governor, protesters have shown up at his events and taunted him as "Red Tide Rick."

Scott has responded by blaming both nature ("Red Tide is naturally occurring") and the federal government (for failing to fix the dike around the lake, although that has no direct impact on the cause of the blooms). He’s also throwing millions of dollars at the algae crisis.

But budget cuts, regulatory rollbacks and other steps he took — or failed to take — during his nearly eight years in office have combined to exacerbate both disasters, say environmental advocates. They say Scott and his administration guided polluters on ways to get out of paying fines, replaced experienced regulators with people who had previously worked for industry and failed to clamp down on the sources of the pollution fueling the blooms.

Those actions were all in line with Scott’s original political incarnation as a pro-business, anti-regulation job-creator.

"For this guy to claim he’s Mr. Environment is a joke, a sick joke," said Jerry Phillips, a former attorney for the state Department of Environmental Protection who now runs the Florida chapter of the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. When it comes to enforcing the state’s environmental laws, he said, "Scott is definitely the worst."

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Three years ago the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida — an organization headed by a developer — announced that it was giving Scott an award for being an environmental champion. A Sierra Club official reacted to the news with laughter.

READ MORE: Gov. Rick Scott as environmental champion? Yes, says foundation headed by developer.

But Scott’s campaign contends he has done a lot for Florida’s natural wonders.

"Governor Scott has made historic strides to help preserve and protect these treasures for generations to come," campaign spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said.

She pointed out that he pushed the Legislature to spend more than $1.8 billion on the Everglades. And after initially disbanding a long-running effort to save the state’s ailing springs, he spent more than $365 million on saving them.

"Anyone who cares about springs restoration should be happy about this record funding," Schenone said.

But Bob Knight, who runs the Florida Springs Institute, says the springs funding has gone to projects that benefit agriculture but do not help the springs. Eighty percent of them still have pollution levels above what state regulators deem safe, yet the state has relied on voluntary measures for polluters, he said.

"The springs have shown no improvement at all over the past seven years," he said.

He noted that the state’s own reports show that nearly 27,000 water body segments are not meeting clean-water standards. That means thousands of Florida’s lakes, rivers and springs are officially impaired, mostly by excessive amounts of nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorous, which are pollutants that lead to low oxygen levels in the water and also fuel harmful algae blooms.

Red Tide blooms begin offshore, but once the algae moves near shore, it can absorb the nutrient pollution in bays and estuaries to become larger and longer-lasting. Meanwhile nutrient pollution — from agricultural operations, leaking sewage and septic systems, and over-fertilized yards — have boosted the blue-green algae that began in Lake Okeechobee and spread to both sides of the state.

Scott signed a bill repealing a state law requiring septic tank inspections. He also slashed funding for programs that monitor water quality and failed to protest federal cuts to those same monitoring programs.

As for Scott’s Everglades record, Alan Farago of Friends of the Everglades said he would give him a D. The money the state spent has not cleaned the pollution there, he said. Instead, it has gone to construction projects — for instance, $90 million to raise a section of the Tamiami Trail to allow more water to flow into Everglades National Park.

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As Scott spent millions on springs and the Everglades, he slashed funding for agencies that protect the environment.

In his first term, he joined with the Legislature to abolish the agency in charge of managing the state’s sprawling growth. He also cut $700 million from the budgets of the five water management districts, forcing hundreds of employees out, including top Everglades experts.

"If you fire the scientists, you don’t have a way to evaluate if progress is being made" in restoring the Everglades, Farago said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Protection has shrunk by more than 600 employees during his tenure. Many of those ousted were top experts in their fields.

"It became a climate in which many people who were very good at their jobs became afraid of losing their jobs — and then they did," said Marianne Gengenbach, pushed out of the state lands division in 2015.

READ MORE: Under Scott, Department of Environmental Protection undergoes drastic change.

Most of those who left were not replaced, while some top jobs went to people with questionable backgrounds. To run the Tampa district office, Scott’s administration hired a charter boat captain. An engineer specializing in getting clients development permits was put in charge of regulation. A lawyer who helped power plants get permits was put in charge of air pollution permitting.

With those replacements came a new attitude toward polluters. It was spelled out in a 2011 memo to the staff from Jeff Littlejohn, the engineer who became the deputy secretary of regulation: "Where noncompliance occurs … your first consideration should be whether you can bring about a return to compliance without enforcement."

Instead of hitting polluters with fines, agency staffers were directed to send out "compliance assistance letters," offering to show businesses how to get back into compliance. Now, Scott’s campaign spokeswoman said, Florida enjoys "a near-record high compliance rate of 96 percent."

The governor with the worst record of enforcing environmental regulations was a Democrat, Lawton Chiles, said Phillips of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, while two Republicans, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, did better.

"And then came Scott," Phillips said, "and he rewrote the books."

Under Scott, the number of enforcement cases has declined, he said. Under Bush, environmental regulators opened about 3,000 cases a year. Under Scott, that number dropped to 800, then 400, and hit just 139 cases for the entire state last year.

Scott has another sharp contrast with Bush. When Bush was governor, issuing a permit for filling wetlands or polluting a waterway took an average of 44 days. Under Scott, that process sped up. While seeking re-election in 2014, Scott praised Department of Environmental Protection employees for cranking out permits as quickly as possible.

"Recently Florida has successfully reduced its environmental permitting time down to just two days, and that’s great!" Scott said in an address to the agency’s employees four years ago.

One pollution story did prompt Scott to take corrective action. A sinkhole opened up under a phosphogypsum stack at Mosaic’s Mulberry phosphate processing plant, draining its contaminated water into the aquifer. The state and Mosaic failed to tell the public about what happened until a television station broke the story three weeks later.

At Scott’s insistence, state law was changed to require a notice be sent out to the public any time such an incident occurs. Scott’s administration pushed no law to prevent such an incident from happening again.

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In listing Scott’s achievements, Schenone pointed out that Scott persuaded the Trump administration to drop plans to drill for oil off Florida’s coast early this year.

READ MORE: If the EPA goes away, is the state up to the job of protecting Florida’s environment?.

Scott, though, avoided challenging the Trump Administration on cutbacks to federal programs that benefit Florida’s environment — for instance, cutting funds for national estuary programs such as the one in the Keys that works to get rid of leaky septic tanks.

"The governor was just AWOL," said Elgie Holstein, a former White House Office of Management and Budget official who now works for the Environmental Defense Fund. To avoid offending the White House, he said, Scott refused to jump into the battle.

One fight Scott eagerly joined involved the long-running Tri-State Water War. To save Apalachicola’s oyster industry, he sued Georgia over its water use. So far, Florida hasn’t triumphed.

Part of his campaign’s claim that he is the greenest governor ever is that in 2013, in his second year, the parks system won its third national award — the only state park system to win three times.

But Scott and his allies also attempted to add golf courses, hotels, cattle-grazing, timber-harvesting and even hunting to the more accepted activities of hiking, biking, camping, canoeing and bird-watching in the parks. Ultimately, those initiatives all failed.

"The parks system was being pushed into making money instead of protecting the resources," Gengenbach said.

Florida’s parks draw more than 20 million visitors a year and generate $950 million for the state’s economy — facts that Scott’s office trumpeted when he spent a day working as a ranger at Hillsborough River State Park where, among other duties, he helped fire a fake cannon.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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