Karen Cyphers: A pound of cure: Scott environmental approach working

Say you notice that in City X there was a dramatic drop in speeding tickets issued year-over-year. You could assume that drivers just stopped speeding (yeah right), or that cops decided to turn a blind eye (unlikely).

Or you could look back at the conditions and notice that prior to the ticketing decline, roads weren’t equipped with proper signs, resulting in unnecessarily high violations.   When speed limit signs were placed in the right spots, eureka!, prevention. Ticketing goes down.

That’s precisely what’s happened with Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection in its efforts to curb environmental violations through outreach and prevention.  When evaluating the outcomes of a strategy like this objectively, the natural measure of success would seem to be fewer violations.

But remarkably, the agency now finds itself under attack for having fewer cases to file because of increased compliance.

The criticism seems to be coming from sources devoted largely to political sniping, and it says a lot more about deficiencies in the regulatory schema that Gov. Rick Scott inherited rather than ones he has put in place.

When Scott took office in late 2010, Florida’s environmental inspections process had it all backwards.  Under former Gov. Charlie Crist, and historically, the focus was on issuing penalties rather than fostering compliance. Facilities were given little guidance on how to avoid violations. Consequently, citations were high.  In 2010, DEP opened 1,587 cases, which resulted in 1,249 consent orders.

Enter Scott and his appointment of Herschel Vinyard as DEP secretary. Vinyard and his Deputy Secretary for Regulatory Programs, Jeff Littlejohn, didn’t think it made sense to just wait for facilities to pollute and then slap them with violations — from an environmental or business perspective.

In mid-2011, Vinyard and Littlejohn started a “Compliance Assistance Initiative” in which they analyzed noncompliance and identified industries and regions of the state with high rates of citation. Using this data, DEP began targeted outreach with facilities, including compliance training events, site visits and guidance.

“We changed the culture from being us-versus-them to being partners in compliance,” said Littlejohn in an interview with Context Florida. “Most compliance failures are not due to unwillingness to comply, but knowledge gaps surrounding very complex sets of regulations.  If we can prevent a breakdown in compliance, we prevent the environmental impact.  And we have done that by offering a significant amount of free training.”

In 2012, DEP conducted more than 5,000 meetings with facilities and reached more than 74,000 people through these meetings and targeted mailings.

And much to the disappointment of the administration’s politically myopic critics, the strategy seems to be working quite well. Last year, DEP opened just 663 cases last year, which resulted in 482 consent orders.

Historically, and nationally, compliance rates with environmental regulations sit at about 85-90 percent, and despite continual inspections, the forces of deterrence never move the needle past that mark.  That’s because deterrence can only prevent failures of compliance that are willful.

By educating facilities, DEP has achieved the highest compliance rates in history: 94 percent during the last two years, and 96 percent today.

In other words, of all inspections conducted, only 4 percent show significant potential for environmental harm. These figures are a reflection of less pollution, not some sort of permission to create more.

Indeed, the department has maintained a zero tolerance policy for willful disregard of the law.  In the past two years, DEP issued the two largest penalties in its history.

As much as some members of the environmental lobby want to perpetuate the fiction of Florida-by-Hiaasen, when it comes to the Scott administration’s “ounce of prevention” on environmental harms, reality easily prevails.

“Would you rather collect penalties from BP for the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, or would you rather have shown up a few weeks prior and found a way to prevent it?” Littlejohn asked, and answered, “There’s no question. Preventing harm is the only goal.”

Guest Author


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