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DEP secretary Jon Steverson resigns after stormy 2-year tenure

Jon Steverson is joining the lobbying firm of Foley Lardner, a governor’s spokesman says.
Published Jan. 22, 2017

Jon Steverson, who for two stormy years has led the state Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Rick Scott, resigned late Friday, effective Feb. 3.

Steverson, whose agency was criticized for not telling the public about a sinkhole at Mosaic's Mulberry phosphate plant last year, made no public announcement about his resignation and did not respond to a request for an interview.

His two-page resignation letter makes no mention of the sinkhole, nor of Steverson's other controversies involving his call to allow hunting and other moneymaking activities at state parks, his replacement of experienced people with inexperienced ones and his push for new water quality standards that allow a larger amount of cancer-causing chemicals to be dumped into the state's waterways.

Instead, the letter focuses on the increased spending by Scott on Everglades restoration and saving the state's springs. He also saluted Scott for pursuing a lawsuit against Georgia over the long-running Tri-State Water War.

"It has truly been an honor to serve as secretary," he wrote to Scott.

A spokesman for Scott said the governor did not force Steverson out over his handling of the sinkhole. Steverson kept the public — and Scott — in the dark for three weeks while the pond full of contaminated water atop the phosphogypsum stack drained into the region's aquifer. Mosaic is still trying to recover all that water and plug the sinkhole. So far, no tests by DEP or Mosaic have turned up the contamination in any of the neighbors' water wells, although three residents are suing.

"The secretary simply got a new opportunity in the private sector and decided to take advantage of it," said Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis. He said Steverson is going to join the lobbying firm of Foley Lardner, which is also where his predecessor at the DEP landed after his resignation. Steverson's current salary is $150,000.

Scott, in a prepared statement, thanked Steverson for his service and praised him for his work on "projects which will ensure protection of our springs, restoration of the Everglades and the continued enhancement of our award winning state parks for years to come." Lewis said the governor would make an announcement about an interim replacement sometime this week.

In December 2014, Scott picked Steverson to replace his first DEP secretary, Herschel Vinyard Jr., who had been a Jacksonville shipyard executive and former law partner of powerful ex-Sen. John Thrasher but had no prior experience at running a state agency or enforcing environmental regulations.

Unlike Vinyard, Steverson had experience with the agency and its issues, serving from 2011 to 2012 as special counsel on policy and legislative affairs as well as acting deputy secretary for water policy and ecosystem restoration. Scott then tapped him as the executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

As DEP secretary, Steverson turned to that water board for his hiring choices. He picked as his deputy secretary water agency board member Gary Clark Jr., who had no prior experience working for DEP or any other state agency. However, he did operate what was billed as "Northwest Florida's premier bobwhite quail hunting preserve." Just last month, he replaced the longtime head of the award-winning state park system, Donald Forgione, with controversial Public Service Commission member Lisa Edgar, whose husband, Michael "Mick" Edgar, is a division director for the water agency.

The state parks were a particular focus of Steverson's tenure at the DEP helm. The parks collect enough revenue to cover 80 percent of their expenses, but Steverson said he wanted them to be completely self-sustaining. He wanted to open the parks to timber harvesting, cattle grazing and even hunting to boost profits. He said in a legislative hearing that he believed the park system could protect the environment "while still becoming self-sustaining. . . . We can do a lot to expand the utilization of this land to support other areas of the DEP mission."

"This is the biggest threat to the park system I've ever seen," Jim Stevenson, a retired DEP employee who worked for the Florida park system for 24 years, said when Steverson's proposal first became public in 2015.

The proposal generated tremendous controversy, and so far, the agency has been unable to find any parks where those activities might be suitable additions.

Last year, Steverson's agency pushed through an increase in the amount of regulated chemical pollutants that would be allowed in rivers, streams and other sources of drinking water. Among those that would be allowed to increase: benzene, a known carcinogen commonly found in the wastewater generated by fracking operations. Those new standards, some of which exceed what the federal government allows, are being reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But by far, the largest controversy of Steverson's tenure was the sinkhole — and the secrecy surrounding it.

The sinkhole, 45 feet wide and 220 feet deep, opened up in the phosphogypsum stack in late August, gulping down 215 million gallons of acidic, slightly radioactive water that had pooled on top, dropping it into the aquifer below.

Mosaic notified the DEP, but neither the company nor the state told nearby residents about the risk to their drinking water for three weeks until a reporter from WFLA-TV got wind of what had happened. State records show Mosaic, the DEP and consultant Aardaman & Associates even avoided using the term "sinkhole," instead using terms like "water loss incident."

Steverson said that because of the euphemisms used by Mosaic and his staff, he didn't realize there was a pollution-swallowing sinkhole and thus did not inform the governor until after the story started making national headlines.

"I knew at the time in late August that there was a water loss incident," Steverson said in November. "I was not aware of the sinkhole until a much later point in time."

Scott initially defended the secrecy, then reversed course and called for changing state law to require government and businesses to report pollution spills publicly within 24 hours.

During a September news conference at the Mulberry plant to tout his change of heart, Scott responded to a question about whether he might fire Steverson by saying, "I'm not going to fire Secretary Steverson over anything we know today. We're in the middle of an investigation."

The investigation is continuing, but in October, Mosaic and the DEP signed a consent order listing the procedure for clean-up of the pollution.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this story. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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