Florida’s Environmental Regulation Commission hasn’t met in 5 years | Commentary

Orlando Sentinel – Florida is poised to spend $2.2 billion on the environment next year.
This state and nation are already spending $23 billion cleaning up the Everglades.
If you could solve problems simply by throwing money at them, we would be fine. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.

Florida has been forced to declare states of emergency because of toxic green algae blooms.
Florida has been forced to declare states of emergency because of toxic green algae blooms. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

A much better way — cheaper and more effective — is to stop people from damaging our natural resources in the first place. And on that front, Florida is pretty pathetic.

Environmental enforcement is a fraction of what it was two decades ago. We’re talking less than half the number of state-initiated crackdowns.

And here’s a starker fact: Florida’s Environmental Regulation Commission hasn’t met a single time in the past five years.

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You tell me how much regulating of the environment you think this group is doing.

The commission hasn’t met since Gov. Ron DeSantis took office, nor for almost all Rick Scott’s final two years in office. Not since February of 2017.

Bonnie Malloy, an attorney with the environmental group EarthJustice, called the group of gubernatorial appointees a “shell commission” that “has been gutted over time and is underutilized.”

She’s right. This group isn’t even pretending to care — even as the state has made one nasty environmental headline after another about toxic algae, radioactive sinkholes, dying manatees and polluted waterways.

Last year, DeSantis made a show of appointing the state’s chief science officer, Tom Frazer, to the commission. A news release from the University of South Florida, where Fraser works, talked about all the important things Fraser could do with the commission “to protect Floridians,” tackling pollution and setting air and water quality standards.

The board obviously hasn’t tackled any of those issues, since it hasn’t even met. Taxpayers will spend money cleaning up the messes they weren’t watching.

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Admittedly the commission’s authority is pretty nebulous. State statutes say it should exist. But they don’t speak to how much power it should have. That should change. Legislators should give the environmental commission as much authority over environmental matters as the State Board of Education has over educational ones. They should also insist the board is stocked with environmental watchdogs instead of representatives from the agricultural and development communities.

We should also beef up enforcement efforts. Right now, Florida often looks the other way.

While Florida’s environmental regulators opened nearly 1,600 enforcement cases in 2007, they launched just 742 last year, according to the watchdogs with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). That’s less than half.

So we ignore problems, and then spend big to clean them up. Would you run your own life like that?

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It would be like budgeting $5,000 for repairs to your car’s engine because you knew you weren’t going to spend $500 to keep it in good shape to begin with. It’s stupid math.

What’s more, Florida politicians keep granting permission for even more destruction. One bill currently advancing in the GOP-controlled Legislature would allow further destruction of seagrass. You know how this story ends … with taxpayers being asked to restore grass we let people destroy. More stupid math.

Florida’s neglect for its natural resources certainly predates this governor and Legislature. In fact, it is sadly engrained in the Sunshine State’s history.

During most of the state’s boom years during the 20th century, the philosophy was basically pave first and deal with the consequences later. Finally in the 1970s, politicians and business leaders realized that if they kept polluting and chopping down everything, they wouldn’t have much left to promote. So conservation efforts were beefed up and enforced by everyone from Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles to Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist.

But then came Rick Scott, who turned neglect of the environment into an all-out assault.

During Scott’s eight years, the state shut down water-quality monitoring stations, slashed staff at the agencies that check for pollution, cut back on land-preservation programs, abolished Florida’s growth-planning agency and curbed enforcement actions that Scott viewed as unfriendly to business.

DeSantis vowed to be something different, a Teddy Roosevelt-styled conservationist — a vow that earned him fawning press early in his tenure.

But EarthJustice’s Malloy said: “It’s all headlines. There’s no actual action.”

That’s certainly the case for the environmental commission which DeSantis’ appointees have never once convened. “If this administration was serious about wanting to do something about toxic algae for example, they would be serious about having this board meet,” Malloy said.

The scientists at PEER credit the DeSantis administration with beefing up enforcement from the nearly non-existent days of Rick Scott — from 371 cases during Scott’s final year to 742 cases last year. But that’s still a shell of what it was under Charlie Crist, when the state launched 1,587 cases.

In PEER’s most recent annual report, the group concluded Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection “continues to be an agency that essentially exists to please industry, while leaving Florida’s residents and tourists to deal with the decaying environment that is left behind.”

That’s the problem. Because when we’re left cleaning up messes, taxpayers spend way more than they ever would if the state had just prevented the messes in the first place.

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