Group: Fines Too Easy for Polluters; an Alliance Wants Harsher Penalties for Those Who Damage the Environment

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Byline: STEVE PATTERSON

After a sharp downturn in the 1990s, more polluters are again facing formal punishment for breaking Florida's environmental laws, a whistleblower group says.

Despite that rise, the group says, the Department of Environmental Protection has become content to collect modest fines without really remedying the damage polluters cause.

"There has been a change in policy of identifying the violations, charging the penalties and moving on to the next case," said Jerry Phillips, director of the Florida office of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, called PEER.

He said a government agency buying land in the Everglades from U.S. Sugar Corp. expects to spend millions of dollars cleaning up pollution left behind there.

But state records show less than $17,000 in fines was assessed against the sugar company in the past 20 years, Phillips said.

"Where are the penalties? ... Any resident of Florida ought to be appalled," he said.

DEP officials said counting fines or formal punishments ignores success the state has had in getting businesses and people to obey laws voluntarily.

"Our job is to get people into compliance," said Mimi Drew, the agency's deputy secretary. "We have a very good compliance record for the most part. ... Usually at least 80 to 90 percent are in compliance. …