Wednesday, January 11, 2006
DON'T DRINK THE WATER
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is calling for the removal of the Inspector General for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Pinky Hall. PEER says Hall has ignored a steady stream of whistleblower reports about political interference in pollution enforcement. PEER further says that Hall has “…issued exonerating reports that conflict with the sworn testimony…”
“Pinky Hall makes Inspector Clouseau look like a rock star,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former Florida DEP enforcement attorney. “The lack of effective oversight by the Office of Inspector General means that outrageous travesties of justice continue without consequence. There will be no positive change unless and until she is removed from her position as Inspector General.”
According to PEER, in the just past few months, for example, Hall’s office has dismissed employee reports, backed by sworn testimony, that –
• Politically-connected corporations are given 24 to 48 hours of advance notice of pollution inspections. One advance notice order followed a major fish kill by the company;
• A major pollution investigation was shelved after a request from the office of Governor Jeb Bush. In another case, a $250,000 fine was reduced to community service; and
• In a series of cases, DEP investigators were told to overlook finding cattle carcasses buried in protected wetlands, slurries of toxic waste running into St. Joe’s Bay and oil spills from sunken tug boats owned by a state contractor.
The focus of much of this activity has been the Northwest region of the state, including the Florida Panhandle, containing some of the least developed portions. Consequently, the damage from illegal development is often more serious than in Florida’s over-developed southern peninsula.
“The Northwest is the final frontier for Florida developers and, with DEP and its Inspector General under orders to stay quiet, the Panhandle has become the Wild, Wild West for pollution violations,” Phillips added. “Going through the Inspector General’s files one can’t help but notice unmistakable patterns, such as findings that do not match the evidence, a complete lack of investigative notes, failure to put top managers under oath and a failure to follow-up on additional allegations that come out of the testimony.”
As if to add insult to injury, in November, 2005, Pinky Hall could not determine who placed a printout of political donations in the file of a candidate selected to fill a key enforcement slot and closed that investigation without even contacting the state agency which produced the printout. That case also involved the role of campaign contributions in deflecting pollution enforcement in the Panhandle.
The problems exemplified by Pinky are pervasive.
Late in 2005, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Office of Executive Investigations wrote off, without a criminal investigation, allegations by federal criminal investigators and state employees that Mary Jean Yon, the Director of Waste Management, aided and abetted companies involved in trafficking of toxic and hazardous waste.
Yon is the Florida's top regulatory officer presiding over hazardous and solid waste and was formerly the Director of the Northwest Florida District of the Department of Environmental Regulation.
The FDLE Office of Executive Investigations, an arm of the Governor's office, received a criminal complaint on March 2, 2005. A day later, on March 3, the FDLE office dismissed allegations made by Special Agent Paul Bouffard of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division, Tampa, Florida.
The complaint, described as highly criminal in nature by FDLE Special Agent Terry Rhodes of the Clearwater field office, was then forwarded for administrative review to, you guessed it, Pinky Hall.
The criminal complaint, including allegations made by the supervisor of Panama City field office, Henry Hernandez, was immediately dropped without investigation.
An administrative and management review excluding the criminal activities was instead ordered by Hall.
The Office of Inspector General instead conducted an investigation of management activities, narrowing down and questioning employees about their management styles and petty differences. The results of that investigation were issued October 13, 2005.
In the report about its own activities and those about Mrs. Yon, the DEP found all allegations were unfounded.
Missing from the report are the serious criminal allegations that Yon aided and abetted Aztec Environmental and Big Wheel Recycling in disposing toxic and hazardous waste, resulting in groundwater contamination and possible poisoning of drinking water supplies in the Florida Panhandle.
Meanwhile, scientific specialists who have worked for the state, monitoring water quality and other pesticide-related issues, say they sometimes were overruled by their superiors when they tried to ban pesticides they considered dangerous.
"We were hired to protect the health and welfare of the people of Florida," says Alex Simons, a former environmental specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "But the monitoring of pesticide use in Florida has become make-believe. It is Disney-esque."
Some of the specialists told the Palm Beach Post the influence of large agrochemical companies and unhealthy relationships between the firms and top state officials are the problem.
"There was a little group of people who basically worked for DuPont and the other chemical companies," said Tom Greenhalgh, a former water contamination investigator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, referring to agriculture department supervisors who reversed recommendations made by specialists.
Simons agreed. "The problem is the whole matter became politicized," he said. "They were in close contact with these companies, and things were being decided over our heads."
The four former specialists interviewed by the Post no longer do pesticide and ground-water work for the state and stopped doing so between 1997 and 2002. But they believe the same problems exist today because many of the top state agriculture officials, whom the specialists accuse of hiding pesticide-related dangers from the public, are still shaping state pesticide policy.
Those officials include: Marion Fuller Aller, head of food safety; Steven Rutz, chief of agricultural and environmental services; Dale Dubberly, who heads the state's main pesticide monitoring office, the Bureau of Compliance Monitoring; and Richard Budell, assistant director of the Office of Agricultural Water Policy. Although contaced by the Post, none would comment.
Theodore C. McDowell, who has advanced degrees in plant pathology and horticulture, quit the agriculture department in 1996 after 10 years, only to transfer to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), where he encountered similar problems until he retired in 2000. "They wouldn't listen to you."
Mark A. "Tony" Murray, 46, who earned undergraduate degrees in both biology and chemistry, also was an environmental specialist for FDEP.
"The people I was working for were always looking over their shoulders, afraid that if they didn't make the right registration decision they would lose their jobs," Murray said. "I was doing scientific work, but they were taking that work and making political decisions." Murray left the department recently, after 15 years of service. Sources: Palm Beach Post, PEER, Coalition for Free Thought in Media