Enforcement of the state's environmental laws has plummeted under Gov. Rick Scott and the private company attorney he picked to lead the Department of Environmental Protection, according to a report to be released Thursday by a group that represents government workers who work in environmental regulation.
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility report says that since Scott took office and Secretary Herschel Vinyard took over DEP in 2011, enforcement has dropped by just about every measure. For example, DEP opened 1,587 cases in 2010 and 663 last year. Similar drops were shown in consent orders, which dropped from 1,249 in 2010 to 482 last year, as well as penalties assessed and fines collected.
The report said the department essentially has become nonfunctional under Vinyard, who worked for a shipyard before Scott appointed him secretary.
"This is nothing more than that department taking a blind eye, looking the other way when these facilities pollute," said Jerry Phillips, director of Florida PEER. "The message is out to the employees that they should not be aggressive in this area. We talk to these employees, we hear from them and I haven't heard from a single employee that enforcement is better now under Herschel Vinyard. It's just the opposite."
DEP said it is taking its responsibility seriously and said the drop in cases is because of a focus on prevention.
"Through outreach efforts such as compliance training events, site visits and structured meetings, we are preventing environmental violations from ever occurring," DEP spokeswoman Reena O'Brien said. "By working to increase compliance through assistance efforts, we are helping to prevent violations that can damage our environment before they occur."
Phillips dismissed the explanation.
"If you are to believe that all of these facilities suddenly decided that with Rick Scott and Herschel Vinyard in that they were suddenly going to comply with their permits is laughable," he said. "They've been very open that they've been trying to basically kill enforcement and that's what they're achieving."
The report comes as Scott has increasingly been trying to position himself as strong on the environment as he seeks re-election. On Wednesday, Scott announced a $90 million commitment for an Everglades project and last week announced a $40 million commitment to a project to help treat nutrient-rich water pouring out of Lake Okeechobee into rivers to the south.
But Scott has also made it clear he wants to cut regulations and make Florida as business-friendly as he can, and when he appointed Vinyard, Scott said he has "a passion for job creation."
"Hypocritical is being very kind for the governor, and I think it's entirely because he's running for re-election," Phillips said. "He can't run from these numbers."