Florida Senate, House unanimously pass bill to increase fines for environmental lawbreakers

By News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, FL (3/13/2020) – An increase in fines for environmental lawbreakers, a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis, is heading to his desk.

The House voted 115-0 on Thursday to give final approval to a proposal (HB 1091) that would make numerous changes in the amounts and duration of penalties for violating Florida environmental laws. The Senate also unanimously backed the bill earlier in the day.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the proposal will “add some teeth” to enforcement efforts needed to prevent dumping sewage into waterways. It also would expand on a water-quality measure (SB 712) approved Wednesday that addresses issues such as agricultural runoff and septic tanks.

“We can’t solve these water issues unless we get a handle on these discharges,” Bradley said of the bill that passed Thursday. “And this is a really, really important step towards getting a handle on it.”

Bill sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said more than 500 million gallons of sewage have been spilled into waterways in the past year.

“We’ve had a spill every three hours of every day of every week for the last year, resulting over the last decade in over 3 billion gallons of raw sewage dumped,” Gruters said. “In this year alone, we’ve had in one area, one community, we’ve had three 350 Olympic-sized swimming pools that you could fill with raw sewage, dumped down to our waterways.”

Most of the changes would increase penalties by 50 percent. Also, the length of time certain penalties could be imposed would run until the violations are resolved by order or judgment. The duration change would be made by declaring each day an offense occurs as a separate offense.

House sponsor Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, has argued waterways face an “existential crisis” and the intent of the law is to prevent illegal releases from being considered a “cost of doing business.”

Fine unsuccessfully sought to raise the fines a year ago, a proposal that was aimed at Brevard County for a 2017 sewage spill into the Indian River Lagoon that lasted 35 days. Fine’s solution last year was to impose a $2 fee for every gallon of raw sewage released.

DeSantis in September called for a 50 percent increase in fines for environmental violations. He labeled the existing structure a “slap on the wrist,” noting penalties for sewage spills are capped at $10,000 a day while pollutants are flowing.

The fines are part of DeSantis’ environmental wish list for legislators this year.

Budget negotiators have tentatively agreed to DeSantis’ call for $100 million for the Florida Forever land preservation program and putting more than $650 million into water projects, which would exceed for $625 million for the Everglades, natural springs and water projects.

The water bill approved Wednesday would, in part, shift oversight of the 2.7 million septic tanks in the state from the Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection.

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