Four Times Rick Scott Screwed Over Florida's Waterways

Four Times Rick Scott Screwed Over Florida's Waterways
Office of Gov. Rick Scott
Florida Gov. Rick Scott is a bad person. He's now running for U.S. Senate, and one of his central campaign strategies is to flat-out admit he stole a then-record amount of money from Medicare and Medicaid when he ran a hospital system. He literally made it harder for poor people to go to the hospital.

So it makes sense that the living embodiment of one of those old Thomas Nast political cartoons in which an octopus steals money from the poor has utterly screwed over the Florida environment during his past eight years as governor. How bad are things? Some parts of the state's rivers and coastline are neon green. Other parts are a stinking reddish-brown sludge. All of the aforementioned areas are so toxic that beachfront businesses are closing and babies cannot breathe the air. Cops are patrolling the beaches while wearing gas masks. It's like the videogame Fallout, except real.

Here's a list of Governor Scott's worst water-quality-related decisions:

1. Cutting $700 million from local water management districts. Here's a fun 2013 dispatch from New Times, which laid out even then how Scott was setting Florida up for disaster:

In 2009, Rick Scott campaigned for governor on a platform of creating smaller state government and fewer regulations. Once in office, he forfeited environmental oversight and weakened the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). He did that by eliminating key growth management and conservation programs. Among them:

• He cut the budgets of water management districts that control sites such as the Everglades and the Indian River Lagoon by $700 million — eliminating more than 300 positions from the South Florida Water Management District alone.

• He axed $150 million from the DEP's budget and placed former shipyard executive Herschel Vinyard in charge with Jeff Littlejohn, whose father runs a Tallahassee lobbying firm, as second-in-command.

• He dismantled the Department of Community Affairs, the $800-million-per-year state agency that monitored development, calling it a "job killer" that stymied business.

• He ended an initiative begun under Jeb Bush in 2001 to protect the state's thousand-plus springs. The initiative had spent more than $25 million before it was defunded.

Scientists and environmentalists describe Scott's policies as faulty and shortsighted. They claim an aquatic ecosystem collapse will kill the economy. Indeed, studies of the Indian River Lagoon and the Everglades count the economic value of the waterways in the billions. Every dollar invested in restoration yields $4 in return, according to a 2010 report conducted by Mather Economics for the Everglades Foundation.

Scott alone is not to blame. The Glades once received $200 million of funding per year, but the budget was cut in half and then reduced further under Gov. Charlie Crist in the late 2000s.

2. Letting septic-tank owners pump actual shit into public waterways. Per Tampa Bay Times veteran environmental reporter Craig Pittman:

With toxic algae blooms now erupting all over Florida — from the St. Johns River to Lake Okeechobee as well as on both coasts — scientists are pointing a finger at one likely fuel source: pollution from leaking septic tanks.

There are more than 2.6 million septic tanks in Florida, according to the state Department of Health. But less than 1 percent of them — about 17,000 — are being inspected to ensure they don’t leak.

Scientists say that while leaks from septic tanks may not start toxic algae blooms, leaking septic tanks serve as fuel to keep the blooms going — like pouring gasoline on a fire.

In 2010, the Legislature passed a law requiring septic tank owners to get an inspection every five years to make sure they weren’t polluting. But septic tank owners rebelled, and two years later legislators repealed the inspections.

The 2012 repeal, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, was spearheaded by former Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness. Now, looking at all the algae blooms, he’s not sure that was the right move.

"In my opinion, septic tanks are a major contributor," Dean said in an interview this week. "If we repealed the wrong thing, then yes, it’s our fault."

Scott disagrees that repealing the inspection law was a mistake. "It’s absurd to say that a bill that the Legislature passed with an overwhelming, bipartisan majority to save homeowners money six years ago has somehow caused the algal bloom problem that’s been plaguing the state for decades," Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said.

3. Slashing water-quality standards and letting industrial companies dump more cancer-causing chemicals into rivers. Is this bad? This seems bad. From the Miami Herald:

Florida regulators voted to approve new water quality standards Tuesday that will increase the amount of cancer-causing toxins allowed in Florida’s rivers and streams under a plan that the state says will protect more Floridians than the current standards do.

The Environmental Regulation Commission voted 3-2 to approve a proposal drafted by state regulators that would impose new standards on 39 chemicals not currently regulated by the state, and revise the regulations on 43 other toxins, most of which are carcinogens.

“We have not updated these parameters since 1992. It is more good than harm,” said Cari Roth, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents developers on the governor-appointed commission and serves as its chair. “The practical effect is, it is not going to increase the amount of toxins going into our waters.”

But the proposal, based on a one-of-a-kind scientific method developed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and nicknamed “Monte Carlo,” is being vigorously criticized by environmental groups. They warn that the new standard would allow polluters to dump dangerous amounts of chemicals in high concentrations into Florida waters before they trigger the limits of the new rule, and let Florida adhere to standards that are weaker than federal guidelines.

“Monte Carlo [the plan's bizarre codename] gambling with our children’s safety is unacceptable,” said Marty Baum of Indian Riverkeeper, an environmental group based in Indian River County.

Under the proposal, the acceptable levels of toxins will be increased for more than two dozen known carcinogens and decreased for 13 currently regulated chemicals. DEP, however, touted the part of the plan that will impose new rules on 39 other chemicals that are not currently regulated, including two carcinogens.

The dozens of chemicals are among those released by oil and gas drilling companies (including fracking operations), dry cleaning companies, pulp and paper producers, nuclear plants, wastewater treatment plants and agriculture. Many of these industries support the new rule but the pulp and paper producers said told the commission the measure was too restrictive.

4. Opposing stricter federal water-quality standards. Here's an Associated Press clip from 2010 about Scott's immediate opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency standards when he became governor. In all fairness, his 2018 Senate opponent, Bill Nelson, also opposed it for no good reason:

Florida's incoming governor and other newly elected Republicans on Friday joined a chorus of politicians and others who have been urging the Environmental Protection Agency to delay new water pollution rules.

A lawyer for environmental groups, though, said they've been "brainwashed" by state officials who concocted wildly inflated figures of what it's going to cost to comply with the new rules.

Gov.-elect Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner-elect Adam Putnam, Attorney General-elect Pam Bondi and five incoming congressmen sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking her to postpone action.

The EPA is set to announce the standards Monday. They are required by the settlement of a federal lawsuit that environmental groups had filed against the agency.

The rules are designed to abate pollution, including discharges from inefficient sewage treatment plants and septic tanks and runoff from farms and urban areas, that's choking lakes, rivers and other interior Florida waters with algae blooms.

Politicians, agriculture and business interests and some state and local government officials say the rules will be too costly and set back Florida's economic recovery. Friday's letter also makes that argument.

"According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the EPA mandates set to be finalized this November 14 will impose capital costs of over $4 billion on municipal wastewater treatment utilities and over $17 billion on municipal storm water utilities," the letter says.
Correction: This story previously misstated the action Scott took on HB 1149, a bill related to drinking-water aquifers
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.