TAMPA - The agency in charge of protecting Tampa's air and water quality has made significant cutbacks to penalties against polluters, the I-Team has uncovered.
We've previously reported on a decline in enforcement and cutbacks to staff at Florida's Department of Environmental Protection (see http://wfts.tv/LBektX ). Now, we've uncovered statistics that show a major change in approach at the agency's Tampa office.
DEP officials say they are protecting the environment more effectively than ever before.
"That's just utterly ridiculous," said Kent Bailey, environmentalist and co-chair of the Sierra Club.
"Honestly, I was shocked by those numbers," Bailey said, in response to the records we obtained.
We found that enforcement actions at the Tampa office have declined 68% since 2010.
We also found fines against polluters have dropped significantly. Penalties issued have declined 78% since 2010, and penalties collected have dropped 91%.
"To me those numbers say that the DEP has lost its willingness and/or ability to enforce environmental regulation," Bailey said.
DEP Southwest District Director Mary Yeargan spoke to I-Team investigator Michael George to respond to questions raised about the agency's new approach. We asked if the agency is trying to reduce environmental regulations under Governor Scott, in an effort to be more business-friendly.
"No. Not a single law has been changed and we still have the same responsibility to enforce our statues and our rules," Yeargan explained.
Yeargan says what has changed is DEP's approach. She says they now look at enforcement as more of a last resort, and focus on educating and working with businesses to prevent environmental regulations, instead of punishing them after a violation has occurred.
"So really, enforcement is a failure. It means somebody did something they should not have done," Yeargan said.
"Doesn't that send a message to polluters that they might be able to get away with it?" asked George.
"No, I don't think so. If you always have enforcement in your back pocket, it's like the carrot or the stick," Yeargan responded.
Yeargan also blamed the bad economy for the drop in penalties. She says they have 40% fewer permitted businesses to oversee compared to four years ago.
In our previous investigations, we've spoken with recently terminated DEP employees who alleged the message from the top was to go easy on businesses.
"We were greatly pressured to give our permitees as much leeway as possible," said fired DEP Tallahassee employee Marilyn Koletzke.
DEP officials say that's not true.
"We're still here to protect the environment, and that's what we do every day," Yeargan said.
DEP also claims 94% of businesses complied with environmental regulations in 2012, an all-time high. Critics say that's because DEP isn't properly enforcing those regulations.
George also asked about the recent terminations at DEP's Tampa office. Of 25 fired employees, more than half were environmental specialists with more than 10 years of experience. Some fired employees claimed they were let go for questioning the new DEP approach.
However, Yeargan would not answer questions about how it was decided who was and was not fired.
"You know, that's a very delicate subject. We're talking about people and their work experience and their personal lives. I would prefer not to discuss individuals. We made the hard decisions that had to be made and it wasn't a pleasant experience for anyone," Yeargan said.