Governor wants pollution fines against cities to hurt more, last longer

The fines for environmental crimes like spilling sewage could go up.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday that he is asking the Florida Legislature to up fines against institutions that spew sewage and commit other environmental violations — increasing the “bite” against those he said haven’t taken past fines seriously.

“What you end up seeing happening with some of these municipalities, it’s cheaper for them to pay a fine and spew all this sewage into the waterways because it’s the cost of doing business,” DeSantis said. “They’d rather do that than invest in the infrastructure they need to make sure the waterways surrounding them are safe and clean.

“Now you’re in a situation where that is going to bite if those laws aren’t followed,” he added.

Kevin Lynskey, director of Miami-Dade County’s Water and Sewer Department, said the agency’s last regulatory fine was in December 2018 for $22,000. Half of that was from Florida, and half was from federal regulators. He said even spills that can cause no-swim advisories at local beaches tend to be small enough when compared to the county’s sewage volume that the regulatory penalties don’t tend to be significant expenses for an agency with an $850 million yearly budget.

While municipalities’ violations were a particular point of focus for DeSantis, the proposal has broader implications. It would increase all fees for environmental violations by 50%. That means everything from record-keeping mistakes to hazardous waste dumps would cost more.

But, perhaps more important, it would also allow the state to continue to assess fees against municipalities that pollute the water even after they stop the immediate sewage spills, for example, and until they sign a binding agreement that explains how they will fix the problem long-term.

Under current law, once the pollutant stops flowing into the water, the fines — $10,000 per day for sewage spills — stop accruing.

“Being able to continue to asses daily fines until we have that finality will really change the dynamic to ensure folks are going to come to the table,” Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, told the Herald/Times.

According to a DEP presentation, between January 2017 and December 2018, Miami-Dade County saw between 150 and 300 “sanitary sewer overflows,” which put the county on the higher end of raw number of spills in the state.

The announcement drew a mixed reaction from environmentalists. Michelle Allen, senior Florida organizer for Food and Water Watch, called it the “wrong approach” because it would simply increase a penalty rather than provide violators with more support.

“I don’t think the municipalities need harsher fines,” she said. “There’s a reason these things are happening: It’s because they don’t have the funding to update the infrastructure.”

Kimberly Mitchell, the executive director of the Everglades Trust, said this announcement is a signal that both polluters and the enforcers within state government are going to “straighten up.” “Nobody before [DeSantis] has ever been willing to look at this comprehensively from the 30,000-foot level and six-foot level, and that’s what he’s doing to start pushing us in a smarter direction.”

Tampa Bay Times staff reporter Josh Solomon contributed to this report.

Doug Hanks covers Miami-Dade government for the Herald. He’s worked at the paper for nearly 20 years, covering real estate, tourism and the economy before joining the Metro desk in 2014.
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