In January, Gov. Rick Scott stood in front of a room full of Department of Environmental Protection employees and praised their hard work.
One accomplishment Scott singled out: making it easier than ever to obtain a permit for filling in wetlands, pumping water out of the aquifer or pouring pollutants into the water and air.
"Recently Florida has successfully reduced its environmental permitting time down to just two days, and that's great!" Scott said. "We take care of our environment, but when we know we're going to give a permit, give it to them quickly."
When Jeb Bush was governor, it took an average of 44 days for the DEP to approve a permit. Cutting that to two days means it's now as easy to get a pollution permit from Scott's DEP as it is to buy a Coke from a vending machine, said Jerry Phillips, a former DEP attorney who's now in charge of the Florida chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
"That's sad on so many levels," he said.
Scott, running for re-election, has promised that in his second term he would be the greenest governor the state has ever seen, because "Florida's natural beauty is a big reason why this is the best state in the country to call home."
He recently unveiled a $1 billion plan for buying land for preservation, cleaning up springs, restoring the Everglades and saving the Indian River Lagoon, without saying where the money would come from. And he says he'll push for tougher enforcement of environmental regulations.
"We've made record investments in Florida's environment, but there's more work to be done," Scott said. "With a $1 billion investment in Florida's waters, an ongoing commitment to the Everglades, and tougher penalties for bad actors, we'll ensure that Florida's treasures are protected for generations to come."
But Scott's first term was focused less on tough regulation and more on helping businesses get what they want and avoid penalties for wrongdoing. Former employees say Scott made wrenching, drastic changes in the agency that's supposed to protect the state's environment — changes the likes of which the DEP has never seen.
In the past three years the Scott administration has:
• Slashed funding for the DEP and the five water districts;
• Laid off veteran DEP and water district employees, including Everglades scientists;
• Put the DEP in the hands of people connected to the industries the agency regulates;
• Emphasized helping industries avoid fines instead of prosecuting polluters.
Under Scott, the driving force in the DEP became "a hatred of regulation in general and in particular environmental regulations," one laid-off DEP veteran, Mark Bardolph, said.
• • •
When Scott was elected, he picked a transition team to study the agencies he would control.
The team in charge of regulatory review was run by Tampa water use lawyer Doug Manson, whose clients include businesses trying to get state permits. Manson's group told Scott "the greatest need right now that will produce the fastest results is to change the culture and the leadership at the DEP and the water management districts."
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Scott, they said, should change the DEP to "create an environment of customer service to help citizens and small businesses succeed while ensuring sound growth."
That's the course Scott has pursued, starting with his appointee for DEP secretary: Herschel Vinyard Jr., a Jacksonville shipyard executive who had served on Scott's economic development transition team.
Vinyard had never run a public agency or worked as a government regulator. But he had been a law partner of politically powerful state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. And, like Manson, he had experience at helping clients get environmental permits.
"Herschel is a man of deep environmental knowledge and practical business experience," Scott said in announcing the appointment. "He has a love for our great state's natural resources and a passion for job creation. He will effectively balance those interests for the benefit of all Floridians."
Many of Scott's agency heads have been pushed out or quit over the past three-plus years, but not Vinyard. He still enjoys the governor's full support, despite embroiling the agency in several statewide controversies.
When asked whether he'd keep Vinyard during a second term, Scott said, "I hope to retain all my good people."
• • •
In his first year, Vinyard made some unusual personnel moves. To run the largest DEP district office, the one in Tampa, Vinyard hired a charter boat captain with no experience with environmental regulation, Gary Colecchio.
Colecchio said he was ordered to quell the complaints of various industries because "the present administration is extremely sensitive to anyone in the regulated community who feels put out or put upon or in any way distressed."
People being regulated noticed the new attitude.
"It was obvious right away that things had changed," said Nancy McCann, who as Tampa's urban environmental coordinator frequently dealt with DEP regulators on such issues as the city's waste-to-energy plant. "We were being treated much more kindly by the staff."
Vinyard also hired Randall F. "Randy" Greene of Brandon, and created the post of chief operating officer for him, paying him $83 an hour for a part-time job. Greene, a former developer and chemical company executive, said his job was "to look at all the operations of the agency and see what could be improved."
One of his tasks: Oversee the layoffs of more than 50 longtime employees.
"They got rid of everyone with any history and knowledge," said Charles Kovach, who had spent 17 years with the agency before he was pushed out. Kovach said he had seen politics influence DEP decisions before "but never like this. It's not about compliance. It's about making things look like they're compliant."
More layoffs cut through the water management districts, which the DEP oversees. The districts protect the state's drinking supply from pollution and overuse. Scott cut their budgets by $700 million — about 40 percent. Then he told the agencies to cut millions more, saying he was just "ensuring that Florida's precious water resources are protected and managed in the most fiscally responsible way possible."
Vinyard hired people who had worked for companies the DEP regulates. 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.
DEP's new attitude was spelled out in a 2011 memo to the staff from Jeff Littlejohn, the consulting engineer who became 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."
That approach was behind one of the biggest changes in the DEP under Scott: how the agency handled pollution complaints.
• • •
Before Scott, if the DEP received a complaint or a company flunked an inspection, the agency would send a warning letter ordering the company to fix the problem. If that didn't spur action, the DEP would send a formal "notice of violation." If that failed, then the DEP would take the polluter to court, going after fines and penalties.
Scott's DEP added a new first step: sending "compliance assistance letters." Instead of hammering polluters, the letters say DEP's experts can help get them back into compliance.
That means DEP now "bends over backwards for the violator," said Christopher Byrd, one of several enforcement attorneys who say they were let go for being too tough.
The DEP cannot say how many compliance assistance letters it has issued since Scott took office. For two years the agency didn't keep track of them.
Since January 2013, though, the DEP has issued more than 800, resolving more than 90 percent of potential violations without taking things any further.
The DEP regulates about 75,000 facilities, everything from wastewater treatment plants to car repair shops to phosphate mines. In 2013, the number the DEP considered to be in significant compliance with all of its regulations hit 96 percent.
That's 8 percent higher than the 88 percent rate in 2006, the last year of Bush's term as governor — when, despite Bush's own pro-business stance, the DEP pursued far more enforcement.
In 2006, the DEP opened about 1,500 enforcement cases. Last year, under Scott, the DEP opened only 225 — a drop of 85 percent.
DEP press secretary Tiffany Cowie contended the only measure that counts is the record high compliance rate: "We believe in prevention: what we can do to prevent impacts to our natural resources. We work with companies allowing them to maintain compliance."
During the Scott administration, she said, the DEP "has made great strides toward protecting Florida's environment. … In 2013 alone, DEP participated in more than 5,800 events in an effort to increase compliance rates, resulting in greater environmental protection."
Actually, Byrd said, one reason for the drop in cases is that Scott's layoffs got rid of anyone looking for violations.
Meanwhile, the DEP made things easier for industry by letting it write the pollution rules.
• • •
In the past 30 years, nutrients have become the most common water pollution problem in the state. Nitrates and phosphorus from fertilizer, septic tank waste and other sources boost toxic algae blooms that kill fish and cause respiratory problems and rashes among swimmers.
In 2009, after being sued by environmental groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new nutrient pollution rules for Florida. Business leaders objected. So near the end of 2011, the DEP unveiled its own rules that state officials said were superior to the EPA's. They wanted the EPA to back off.
Environmental groups said the state's rules were too loose, but those rules drew support from the Florida Pulp and Paper Association, Associated Industries and phosphate mining giant Mosaic, among others. Documents from the DEP show they helped write them.
"It was negotiated with the representatives of the polluting industries," said David Guest of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which led the lawsuit.
Environmental groups and the public were excluded, he said, until the DEP was ready to hold public hearings. The EPA accepted the DEP rules and dropped its own. But that would not be the only conflict over clean water during the Scott administration.
• • •
When Jeb Bush became governor, he launched an initiative to try to save Florida's ailing springs, suffering from algae blooms and a loss of flow. Experts produced recommendations. The DEP set up advisory groups to take a closer look at what the major springs needed.
When Scott took office, the $25 million Bush springs initiative ended. The DEP disbanded all the advisory groups.
Soon, though, the Tampa Bay Times and other news organizations highlighted how degraded the springs had become. A petition drive turned in 15,000 signatures demanding action.
Scott became a springs supporter. In January he announced a $55 million investment in trying to clean them up, and his re-election pledge calls for another $150 million. But when a coalition of senators tried to push through a measure this spring sending $380 million to springs projects, House leaders killed it, and Scott didn't say a word.
Scott experienced another change of heart, on the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile-long estuary that encompasses 40 percent of Florida's Atlantic Coast.
In 2013, Scott vetoed $2 million for a network of pollution sensors designed to help figure out what might be killing hundreds of manatees, dolphins and pelicans in the lagoon. His veto message said the project lacked statewide significance.
But after the die-offs made headlines, Scott visited the lagoon and met with local officials, avoiding a crowd waving signs that read, "Stop Killing Our Lagoon." When senators put $95 million in the 2014 budget for Indian River Lagoon, Scott did not veto it.
One of the DEP's biggest about-faces on pollution happened in Scott's own back yard.
• • •
The news last fall that the DEP had given a permit to the Dan A. Hughes Co. to drill for oil within 1,000 feet of a Collier County neighborhood outraged both residents and local politicians.
But DEP officials said this was routine. They hadn't turned down a permit for oil drilling in nearly 20 years. As for whether it might be too close to where people live, one DEP official said, "A specific distance to homes is not mentioned in the rules."
When the Hughes Co. violated its permit in December, DEP officials kept it quiet until April, after they had negotiated an agreement for a $25,000 fine and a plan to monitor for pollution.
Then in June, the DEP became far more aggressive toward Hughes over its use of a process similar to fracking called "acid stimulation." By July, upset Hughes officials had pulled out of Florida.
Cowie, DEP's press secretary, said the agency has been consistent throughout: "Our number one priority at DEP has always been and continues to be ensuring Collier County families are safe and that the environment is protected."
But local residents say they saw a change in DEP, and it was driven by the gubernatorial race. After a Times/Herald article pointed out that Scott had a six-figure stake in a French energy company that worked on the Collier drilling project, residents said, the DEP abruptly got tougher on Hughes.
"The way we see it, it's an election year," said Joe Mulé, president of Preserve Our Paradise, a citizens group that organized to oppose Hughes' drilling plans. Because DEP hadn't changed the rules that allowed the permit to be issued, he called the change "slapping some lipstick on a pig."
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.