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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Don't make target of EPC

It was disturbing to see Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham skewer the Environmental Protection Commission at a recent budget workshop. Higginbotham, as the Tribune's Mike Salinero reports, chastised the agency and said it was "again becoming an impediment" to business. This is the kind of talk commissioners have frequently used when seeking to undermine the agency. Higginbotham stresses he has no issue with EPC's "rules and regulations." He had received complaints and wanted to be sure field workers were prompt and considerate dealing with regulated parties.
That's reasonable enough, but the commissioner should have known his pointed comments at the public workshop would rekindle thoughts of past efforts by industry-friendly commissioners to intimidate the EPC. Indeed, business interests have sought to neuter the EPC virtually since former state lawmaker Terrell Sessums established it in the 1960s. A particular sore point with developers is that the EPC has stronger wetlands protections than the state. Higginbotham, to his credit, helped defend the EPC from a 2007 commission effort to eliminate its wetlands responsibilities. The east Hillsborough commissioner, though pro business, is no industry lackey. But at the workshop, he took the EPC to task for two cases, one involving Speedling Inc., a nursery in Sun City, the other concerning the Varn family ranch in Plant City. Higginbotham says he wasn't seeking any special treatment for those operations, and his office had even initiated one of the environmental complaints against Speedling. He just wanted the conflicts to be resolved quickly and fairly. Still, his comments hardly seemed intended to advance resource protection. A memo sent to the commissioners by EPC Director Rick Garrity details a series of air and water violations by Speedling, including discharging wastewater into a stormwater system that runs into Tampa Bay. According to the EPC, it entered into a consent order with Speedling in 2011 over a number of the offenses and assessed the company $34,749 in civil fines. That amount was reduced by 80 percent, to $6,949, when the company agreed to invest in anti-pollution measures. Current issues include the failure to test wastewater and unauthorized discharges into surface waters, a serious matter because it can affect a marine-life-rich stretch of Tampa Bay. In the ranch case, the EPC was willing to approve the harvest of half the cypress trees in a wetland, which hardly seems restrictive. The indulgent state law allows 90 percent of cypress trees to be cut from a wetland. The agency's stance in both these cases does not seem abusive. Higginbotham is adamant he did not want EPC to relax its rules. "I only care about civility and better communication," he says. "I feel it's part of my job to speak out when I hear something is not done right." Higginbotham should by all means be sure affected parties are treated fairly. Regulators should be accountable. But he shouldn't forget a county history where commissioners have used such public attacks to paint a target on the county's environmental safeguards.
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