If the EPA goes away, is the state up to the job of protecting Florida's environment?

Michael Castle, a park ranger at Hillsborough River State Park and Gov. Rick Scott  check to see if a campground at Hillsborough River State Park was ADA compliant in 2012. The governor wanted to see what a day in the life of a park ranger was like. Now Scott's Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the state's parks, may have to take on more environmental duties if the federal Environmental Protection Agency is diminished. [EDMUND FOUNTAIN  |  Times]
Michael Castle, a park ranger at Hillsborough River State Park and Gov. Rick Scott check to see if a campground at Hillsborough River State Park was ADA compliant in 2012. The governor wanted to see what a day in the life of a park ranger was like. Now Scott's Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the state's parks, may have to take on more environmental duties if the federal Environmental Protection Agency is diminished. [EDMUND FOUNTAIN | Times]
Published March 17, 2017

The leader of President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, wants to hand much of its duties back to the states. That would put the job of protecting Florida's natural bounty almost entirely in the hands of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

That raises the question: Is DEP up to the job?

In the six years since Rick Scott became governor in 2011, the size of the state agency charged with protecting the environment has shrunk by more than 600 employees, dropping from about 3,500 to 2,900.

"The agency has been consistently downsized," said Marianne Gengenbach, who was pushed out of her position as bureau chief of the DEP's office of environmental services after eight years with the agency. "The reported purpose was to create efficiency, but the practical result is an inability to carry out the statutory duties of the agency."

Many of those ousted were viewed as the top experts in their fields, said former DEP employees, and their dismissal left those who were spared beset by anxiety and paranoia.

"Some people had 20 to 25 years in; knowledgeable people, people who never had a problem," said Connie Bersok, the agency's senior wetlands expert, who retired at the end of February after 30 years. "It almost seemed like a culling of the people who knew too much."

Many weren't replaced. However, a DEP spokeswoman said the agency's smaller size hasn't reduced its effectiveness.

"We continue to focus on restoring and protecting Florida's natural resources and enhancing its ecosystems," spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said.

While the agency is focused on protecting the environment, she said, "we are also committed to being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, improving processes and increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of our operations."

Scott, a Trump supporter, is satisfied with the agency's operation, and with the new EPA boss, according to press secretary Lauren Schenone.

"The governor looks forward to a productive working relationship between Florida's DEP and the federal EPA and continuing to protect Florida's pristine environment for generations to come," she said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

When his last DEP secretary, Jon Steverson, resigned in January to take a job with a law firm that has DEP contracts, Scott said: "I am proud of the tremendous and historic strides we have made toward safeguarding Florida's natural resources during his time at DEP."

Not only has the agency shrunk, it has also been pressured to speed up how quickly it issues permits for filling in wetlands and dumping pollution into the state's waterways.

During Jeb Bush's term as governor, which ended in 2007, the average time for issuing a DEP permit was 44 days. In 2014, Scott boasted the agency had "successfully reduced its environmental permitting time down to just two days, and that's great!"

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Since Scott was sworn in, the agency's primary regulatory focus has been on speeding up the issuing of permits, said Janet Llewelyn, a top state water policy and permitting expert who was pushed out last year after 32 years.

"The quality of the permit review was sometimes sacrificed as a result," she said.

At the same time it was shrinking, the agency drastically scaled back its enforcement of pollution laws.

DEP's new attitude was spelled out in a 2011 memo to the staff from Jeff Littlejohn, the consulting engineer who was picked as the new deputy secretary in charge of regulation.

"Where noncompliance occurs, despite your best efforts at education and outreach," he wrote, "your first consideration should be whether you can bring about a return to compliance without enforcement."

So instead of hammering polluters, DEP staffers were to send out "compliance assistance letters," offering to show businesses how to get back into compliance.

As a result, last year the agency opened 81 percent fewer enforcement cases than it did in 2010 and collected the smallest amount of fines in 28 years, according to an analysis by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental watchdog group.

"The DEP is just a shadow of its former self," said Jerry Phillips, a former DEP attorney who now heads up PEER's Florida office. "It's a mess."

DEP officials contend that what counts is that Florida businesses now have a record-high compliance rate with the state's pollution laws.

When Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, testified at his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing last month to become the new EPA administrator, he repeatedly said he believed environmental protection was a job best left to the states, not the federal government.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, has gone him one better, filing a one-sentence bill to abolish the EPA in 2018.

"I think the states are better positioned to assess their environmental assets and often they are more nimble" at protecting them, he said in an interview Friday.

However, Gaetz recently told the Times that the DEP isn't ready to take over for the EPA "at their current funding level." He wants to see some of the EPA's $9 billion budget spread out among the states, including Florida.

Former state employees say the problem with DEP taking on the EPA's duties go beyond just funding.

The shrinking of the DEP began shortly after Scott took office and hasn't stopped. A chunk of the staff, 150 sworn officers who enforced environmental laws, were transferred to the state wildlife commission. Then came other departures, many of the people over the age 50.

Repeated cutbacks have left the survivors "afraid to do the right thing, because doing the right thing could cause them to be fired," Gengenbach said.

Over and over, DEP employees said they saw longtime colleagues escorted out of the building, often with no explanation, recalled Bersok. She kept a journal of everything she saw at the agency over her 30 years.

"It certainly does not boost morale," she said. "It makes people nervous. You don't know who's going to be next. It does engender a sort of paranoia."

For instance, Gengenbach said, she and a lot of other employees were shocked last year to see Llewellyn, the water policy expert, let go after more than three decades.

"If it could happen to someone who's that good, and never got into trouble, it could happen to anyone," she said.

Llewellyn said she was never given an explanation for why she was told to leave.

"I wish I could tell you the reason," she said. "I don't know why."

The purge hit the state's prize-winning park system hard. Since Scott took office, most of its leadership has been booted out or demoted. In one day in 2015, two top administrators were shown the door and told not to return.

"They did it just to make a statement and to make the staff fearful," said one of the two administrators, Dana C. Bryan, who was ushered out a month shy of his intended retirement. He was told to spend the month waiting at home for a special assignment that never arrived.

The parks management team that won all those awards has been "dismantled," Bryan said. "The park service that was so good probably won't ever be the same again."

In 2012, Scott did one of his "Let's Get to Work" days as a park ranger at Hillsborough River State Park. He took the occasion to praise the parks as an economic engine for the state and noted, "A healthy environment makes for a healthy economy."

Bersok wasn't fired or forced out. But she was suspended from her job in 2012 after she refused to go along with a wetlands permit that did not meet state requirements.

Those who sought the permit had the ear of one of the agency's recently appointed deputy secretaries, and he intervened in the case, "which was not normal," Bersok recalled.

Bersok refused to back down. She was suspended because her superiors thought she might leak information to reporters about the permit. She was ultimately reinstated, and a judge later ruled that she was right about the permit and blasted DEP officials for ignoring her.

Paranoia about the media was another hallmark of the past six years, Bersok said.

"When I first started, if the press called, you could talk to the press, you just had to document it for your boss," Bersok said.

"Then it became: You had to get permission first, but you could still talk.

"Then it became: The press office would approve of anyone talking with a reporter, but they had to be on the line.

"And now that's changed to: You do not talk to the press. As a result, a lot of the information that's expressed to the press wasn't much information at all."

That, in turn, has led to even more paranoia among the staff. Being afraid, Llewellyn said, isn't conducive to enforcing the state's pollution rules.

"When people feel anxious," she said, "they're less likely to do anything that would make them stand out."

Scott's budget proposal for next year recommends reducing the DEP staff by another 38 people. Bersok said she has been told her job is one that's being phased out.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.