Protecting Florida's polluters

Under Gov. Rick Scott, the DEP has worked to weaken clean water standards and second-guess the experts.
Under Gov. Rick Scott, the DEP has worked to weaken clean water standards and second-guess the experts.
Published Jan. 4, 2013

Few operations have been as compromised under Gov. Rick Scott as Florida's Department of Environmental Protection. An agency that time after time has put the interests of developers and the polluting industry ahead of the state's natural resources struck again last month, laying off nearly 60 employees — many if not most of them responsible for enforcing compliance with environmental regulations. This agency is supposed to protect the environment, not enable its destruction.

The layoffs included veterans with two or three decades worth of service. Charles Kovach came up with a solution that saved Tampa Bay after a leaky gypsum stack in 2003 threatened to kill a vast cross-section of marine life. Gone. Mark Bardolph blew the whistle on DEP more than a decade ago for failing to protect the aquifer from animal waste. He's gone, too — and so is his boss. Kovach said he's seen politics at work in the past, "but never like this." Bardolph calls the agency "all a political farce." A former DEP attorney, Jerry Phillips, now with an outside advocacy group, said Scott's administration wants "to essentially turn the agency over to the regulated industries."

A DEP spokesman defended the moves, saying the intent was to flatten the ranks and make the bureaucracy more responsive. The agency noted that the layoffs amounted to only a fraction of DEP's nearly 4,000 full- and part-time staff. But the loss in numbers is secondary to the loss in experience, program priority and institutional history that DEP caused with the layoffs. The agency makes a ridiculous argument that it would rather improve outreach to industry than to fine a polluter after the fact. Can't it do both?

This is what Floridians have come to see under Scott's DEP — an agency that has worked hand in hand with the governor to dismantle the regional water boards, weaken clean water standards and second-guess the experts, local authorities and the science behind regulatory decisions. Former employees say the layoffs, and DEP's hiring of industry consultants into upper management ranks, reflect the Scott administration's interest in appeasing the development community.

These individual moves to set back environmental protection have a compounding effect. The loss of experienced voices at the state level leaves the public lacking a counterweight to oversee the private sector. Scott also has pushed off more of the responsibility for protecting the state's natural resources to cash-strapped local governments, which don't have the resources or expertise to do the job. The end result is harmful to Florida's future and economy in the long run.