Ruling removes Florida pollution disclosure rule, but fight for transparency isn’t over yet

Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission  test creeks and streams for Mosaic contamination.
Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission test creeks and streams for Mosaic contamination.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA) – Since late September, polluters in Florida have endangered themselves, the environment and the public at least 741 times with hazardous spills across the state. That works out to about 57 times a week, or eight times a day, that someone is spilling something bad somewhere in Florida.

We know about all of those mishaps because Governor Scott called for an emergency DEP rule to disclose those spills after the late-reported Mosaic sinkhole disaster in Polk County.

But not anymore.

Friday afternoon, an administrative law judge in Tallahassee dropped a stealth bomb that almost no one heard, which reverses course on the statewide disclosure of toxic spills. For now at least, we no longer have a right to know from polluters what kind of poison is being spilled next door, down the street or anywhere in the state.

The Governor’s press office released a statement Tuesday insisting that agency “will continue the public pollution notification process to ensure all Floridians and visitors are notified of pollution incidents” but didn’t explain how that will happen without the emergency rule. The latest pollution listed in the DEP database occured on December 24.

The judge’s ruling essentially concludes that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) overstepped its authority when it required polluters to publicly disclose toxic spills within 24 hours.

The DEP policy was put in place on orders of Governor Rick Scott following the Mosaic spill that went unreported for weeks, until an 8 On Your Side investigation by reporter Steve Andrews brought it to light and embarrassed the Governor and the DEP into calling for more transparency.

The press office’s statement claims the Governor is now committed to keeping the public fully informed. “He will fight for legislation that ensures Florida families and visitors are notified within 24-hours of a pollution incident. We will review the judge’s order to determine next steps,” the statement said.

Business interests led by the Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, Florida Retail Federation, Florida Trucking Association and National Federation of Independent Business argued that the DEP spill disclosure rule violated due process, and exceeded that agency’s rule making authority.

The administrative law judge, Bram D.E. Canter, agreed and struck down the requirement that has promoted hundreds of spill disclosures since the rule took effect just a few months ago.

Score one for businesses chafing under the light of pollution disclosure. But, the battle is far from won.

State Representative Kathleen Peters, (R) of Treasure Island, is already working on legislation that would in some way or another reinstate public disclosure.

“It’s not over, its only just begun,” Peters said. “I think it’s time we do something to insure we have transparency.”

Peters is more focused on making state agencies do the disclosing, to take the burden off of small businesses that may not be equipped to get the word out.

Either way, pollution would not go unnoticed or unreported as it did in the Mosaic sinkhole catastrophe in Polk County, or in St. Petersburg where millions of gallons of sewage ended up on streets and in waterways long before city officials got around to telling anyone.

“We knew that the people didn’t know and it just wasn’t right and they wanted to know,” Peters said.

St. Petersburg insists it will continue to disclosure pollution spills triggered by city government mishaps regardless of the administrative judge’s ruling.

“We recognize this still needs to be settled in the legislature, so we’ll just continue to operate as we have been (under the rule),” said St. Petersburg Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley.

See the filings about spills that have been made between Sept. 27 and Dec. 30, when the rule was declared illegal.

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