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Thursday, Mar 30, 2017
Commentary

Environmental protection through compliance

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is charged with protecting Florida's natural resources, including air, water and land. To do this effectively, the agency is divided into three primary areas: Regulatory Programs, Land and Recreation and Water Policy and Ecosystem Restoration. Each area has a specific mission and employs a wide range of programs and actions to protect Floridians and our environment. I work with DEP's divisions of air, water, and waste and six regulatory districts statewide to promote environmental stewardship and assure compliance with Florida's environmental laws. These laws are important to Florida's environment and economy. They ensure projects and sites are developed, built and operated in ways that protect Florida's air, water and other natural resources, along with public health. DEP's longstanding policy has been to promote compliance with the law, first and foremost, to prevent environmental harm. If we see an opportunity to prevent a violation or change a behavior before environmental harm occurs, we have an obligation to do so as quickly and practically as possible. We use a variety of preventive tools, including stronger permits, more effective monitoring and environmental assessment and expanded compliance assistance and education to help Floridians understand and follow the law. Compliance rates across the department's regulatory programs are generally 90 percent or higher, and we continually evaluate them by conducting thousands of on-site inspections and reviewing hundreds of thousands of air and water quality data results every year. With expanded and improved compliance assistance programs, and an invigorated focus on the highest risk facilities and sites, even better compliance rates are possible. A great example is the waste management program in DEP's Northeast District. By training nearly 600 customers through DEP, local government and industry-sponsored workshops, and by conducting on-site assistance visits and providing clear compliance manuals, the district's compliance rate for hazardous waste and used oil was 99 percent in 2011.
Statewide, we've seen the rate for significant noncompliance in hazardous waste facilities drop from almost 10 percent in 2009 to about 2 percent so far this year. This improvement has been accomplished even as total penalty amounts in that program have decreased significantly. That doesn't mean that penalties are unimportant, but it certainly proves that good compliance can be achieved with a strong presence in the field, active compliance assistance and carefully targeted penalties that deliver a strong message. Preventing noncompliance is the best way to enforce Florida's environmental laws. It makes more sense and saves money in the long run to prevent bad acts than wait for them to happen and have to clean up the mess. And, as compliance goes up, overall penalty collections may, in fact, go down. DEP is not in the business of collecting money, but helping Floridians preserve and protect our resources. This does not mean we won't enforce when necessary. DEP is prepared and willing to take strong enforcement actions. However, as responsible public servants, we also take into account how serious the violation was, whether it was a first-time or repeat offense, whether it was due to ignorance or negligence, and whether damage to the environment, if any, can be remediated quickly. While we did assess fewer total penalties last year, the average penalty amount was the third highest in the last six years. In fact, the largest single penalty over the last six years was assessed in 2011 for solid waste violations. That amount was actually more than the total penalties assessed by that program in the three previous years combined. Penalties have to be targeted, and we need to take other strong actions that change the behavior of the violator and deliver the message to others that environmental violations will not be tolerated. One way we're doing this is by directing our inspectors to facilities that have historically had compliance problems or that present a higher risk to the environment. We know this may lower our reported compliance rates in the short-term, but it's important to focus our actions where they are most valuable to the environment and public health.

Jeff Littlejohn is the Department of Environmental Protection's deputy secretary for regulatory programs.
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