Tampa Bay legislator trying to fix Florida's pollution notification system

Governor's emergency rule deemed invalid by judge
Posted at 6:32 PM, Jan 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-04 18:32:38-05

Over the holidays, the emergency rule requiring Florida businesses and government entities to alert the public to pollution spills was quietly eliminated by an administrative law judge; citing the Governor's lack of authority in demanding such transparency.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) wrote the 24-hour notification rule after two major pollution incidents in the Tampa Bay Area. First was the dumping of hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into local bays. The next, in August of 2016, was the massive toxic sinkhole that opened up on a Mosaic fertilizer facility in Lake Wales.

"We clearly have a law with regard to public notification that didn't make sense," said Governor Rick Scott days after the Mosaic sinkhole was finally made public in September. "We have to notify people. It's the right thing to do."

Now that the DEP's emergency rule has been deemed invalid, the Governor is encouraging a solution through legislation.

Rep. Kathleen Peters of District 69 in Pinellas County is among those crafting new legislation right now. Many of Peters's constituents were affected by the sewage dump, and were frustrated by the lack of communication. That's part of the reason she's taking it into her own hands, writing a new law that would still require public notification within 24 hours.

She sees boil water advisories as a potentially good model to mirror.

"Whenever there's a water main break, very quickly the citizens know that, maybe it isn't required to boil water but do it cautionary, and it makes the news and everybody knows," Rep. Peters tells ABC Action News reporter Adam Winer.

Rep. Peters says she also wants to take some of the burden off of small businesses who, according to the now-invalid law, were required to notify the public themselves. That requirement is something most small businesses are ill equipped to handle.

"If a farmer were to spill some fertilizer, would that farmer know what the thresholds are and would that farmer have the ability to do a press release and know the media contacts to really get that out?" questions Peters. "It's no different for a small business with a gas station or trucking company," she adds.

Where the onus of notification responsibility lies may be a big sticking point as legislators debate the new bill she is proposing. Rep. Peters says she has plans to meet with the Governor's Office and the DEP soon to discuss the language of her bill.

Meanwhile, the DEP tells ABC Action News they will continue to alert the public of pollution events the best they can until the legislature comes up with new rules.

"Protecting Florida’s pristine environment is our top priority and DEP will continue the public pollution notification process to ensure all Floridians and visitors are notified of pollution incidents. Moving forward the notification process from the Department may change, however it was imperative that the notification to the public continued seamlessly," a wrote a DEP spokesperson on Wednesday.

The DEP can appeal the judge's ruling, and the Governor's office says they are "reviewing the judge's order to determine next steps."