By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
With minimum public input, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been working for four years on a proposal that could let more cancer-causing toxins be released into the state’s surface waters. Most Floridians have been kept in the dark regarding the plan that will cause great harm to the state’s aquatic environment, residents and visitors, according to activists and some elected officials.
Critics told FloridaBulldog.org that DEP officials hope the lack of public scrutiny will allow them to push through changes to increase the amount of hazardous chemicals that can be allowed in the discharging of industrial waste into the state’s rivers, streams, canals, lakes and coastal waters. The proposed rules would go into effect in September if approved by the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“This is deliberately being cloaked in secrecy,” said Joanne Oyen, a Pembroke Pines Democratic Party activist. “They are trying to push through something that is wrong and corrupt. There should be a public outcry about this.”
The DEP is recalculating the parts-per-billion limits for 43 chemicals designated as health hazards, as well as adding 39 toxins that are not currently regulated. For example, the cap on benzene, a carcinogen that can cause vomiting, convulsions and loss of consciousness to people exposed to high levels, would increase from 1.18 parts per billion to 3 parts per billion under the new criteria. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits benzene at 1.14 parts per billion.
Department spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller insisted the new rules would protect Florida’s waterways. “DEP’s nationally recognized scientists have worked diligently since 2012 to develop the proposed Florida-specific human health criteria,” Miller said. “They have been calculated based on the best science available, guidance from EPA and a scientific peer review panel and input from the public.”
Yet, DEP has conducted very little public outreach. Between May 2012 and February 2013, the department held eight public workshops and presented its proposal at two public hearings, including one in front of the Environmental Regulation Commission. The only workshop in South Florida — home to two national parks and a preserve in large bodies of water — took place in West Palm Beach on May 15, 2012. None took place in 2014 and 2015. Last month, about three weeks before the deadline for public comments, DEP held workshops in three cities in a 72-hour span.
But none took place in 2014 and 2015. In May of 2012, about three weeks before the deadline for public comments, DEP held workshops in three cities in a 72-hour span. The only workshop in South Florida — home to two national parks and a preserve in large bodies of water — took place in West Palm Beach on May 15, 2012.
Moreover, Miller said the public workshops and hearings were advertised only in the Florida Administrative Register and DEP websites, as required by state law. Aside from the online public service announcements, the department sent emails to more than 1,000 individuals and organizations that had signed up for updates and notifications, Miller added.
The department did not engage in any radio, television, or newspaper advertising. And there was no social media campaign. Not surprisingly, the department has received comments about its proposed new rules from only 115 people.
Considering the new rules will impact Florida’s 19 million residents and the state’s 100-million-plus visitors, DEP should have held more hearings and taken more measures to inform the public, Oyen said. When the department held three workshops last month, the closest location to South Florida was in Stuart, an hour-and-a-half drive from Pembroke Pines.
‘A very serious public health issue’
“This is a very serious public health issue,” Oyen said. “Eleven workshops since 2012 equates to less than three workshops per year in our huge state. Is anyone starting to get the picture that the DEP does not want anyone to know of their toxic intentions?”
Oyen took her complaints to U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and State Sens. Kristin Jacobs and Eleanor Sobel, all of whom recently wrote letters to DEP officials expressing their concerns about the lack of public involvement and increasing the caps on toxic chemicals.
“FDEP should maximize the opportunity to maintain higher levels of protection through more stringent regulations of chemical compounds released into our environment,” Jacobs wrote DEP Manager Eric Shaw on June 6. “I urge the Department to select the method which will offer the most protection for both Florida residents and our precious resources.”
Three days later, Graham weighed in. “Contamination of our waters threatens the health of our communities, our economy and our environment,” the congresswoman wrote DEP Secretary Jon Stevenson. “I urge you to give these concerns your full and timely consideration and to reconsider any proposal that would weaken Florida’s water quality standards.”
On June 13, Sobel suggested to Shaw that the DEP should hold more public workshops. “While we can debate the issue of the water quality standards themselves, I am also concerned about the process through which the public was notified regarding the workshops,” Sobel said. “I am aware of only three workshops held across the state this year addressing this issue with the nearest location being Martin County … This is completely unacceptable.”
However, Miller was noncommittal about allowing for more public discussion. “DEP is now considering all comments and will update its proposed rules as necessary,” Miller said. “If substantial changes occur, another round of public workshops will be held.”