1. Opinion

Editorial: The good works of Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission

Published Jul. 8, 2016

The development industry's go-to team on the Hillsborough County Commission tried and failed nearly a decade ago to gut the Environmental Protection Commission. That agency, which protects natural resources in the county and its three cities, not only fought back; it achieved a remarkable turnaround this year by winning a coveted state award for excellence. The recognition is a timely reminder this election season of the vital role the EPC plays, the duty commissioners have to defend its mission and the responsibility voters have to judge commission candidates on their environmental positions.

The EPC won the Governor's Sterling Award, a recognition meant to honor businesses, nonprofits and public agencies that are considered the best-run and best-led in Florida. The award has honored 78 businesses and organizations since its inaugural class in 1993, including a handful of local public agencies, from the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections to the tax collectors' offices in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

The EPC is the first environmental agency to receive the award. That means it showed through the rigorous evaluation process that the agency is doing its job effectively and efficiently, which is good for taxpayers, the environment and the building industry. Created by the Legislature in 1967, the EPC is charged with guarding against noise, air and water pollution. County commissioners sit as the EPC's governing board. Over its life, the agency has stopped leaky petroleum tanks from polluting the public drinking water supply, improved air quality by curbing the release of acid gases and other pollutants and worked to keep builders from destroying wetlands or low-lying areas that filter toxins from the water and act as sponges to reduce flooding.

The award also highlights the progress Hillsborough has made politically over the past decade. In 2007, four county commissioners voted to eliminate the EPC's wetlands division, the agency's most valued program. One of those commissioners, Jim Norman, who later left the state Senate after an ethics scandal, is trying to regain a commission seat this year. It was only after a public backlash erupted that the commission reversed course and spared the EPC.

Hillsborough residents and businesses have become much more attuned to the role that clean water and air play in the region's economy and quality of life. A 2014 study found one of every five jobs in the area watershed was dependent on a healthy Tampa Bay, amounting to a $22 billion impact across the six-county region. Air cleanup efforts have helped reduce the effects of ozone, which especially harms children and seniors. On the regulatory side, the EPC is working in collaborative fashion to bring property owners into compliance. And the agency is well positioned to be relevant for years to come, as developers look to build more energy-efficient and sustainable projects, and as the region confronts the health, safety and economic impacts of climate change.

The EPC is a success story that almost ended prematurely. With eight candidates seeking two Hillsborough commission seats this year, voters need to send a message that the environment is a priority by vetting the records and promises of those looking to oversee the EPC. This agency's important work cannot be taken for granted.