DEP Pushing Ahead With Pollution Notification Rules

Nov 10, 2016

A massive sinkhole at the Mosaic Phosphate Company near Lakeland Florida is causing millions of gallons of polluted water to seep into the ground.

The Department of Environmental Protection is tinkering with new regulations that would expedite public notification for pollution.   But many industrial interests are pushing back.

It’s been a little over two months since a sinkhole opened up at a Mosaic phosphate plant in Polk County.  The delay in notifying the public as millions of gallons of polluted water drained into the Floridan aquifer prompted action from the Governor’s office.  With the stroke of a pen, Governor Rick Scott required 24 hour notification in the event of similar spills, and 48 hour notification of any potential public health risks.  But that emergency rule runs out on Christmas Eve—so state regulators are developing a permanent rule to take its place. 

“Like everyone else I agree completely with the intent of trying to notify the public to make sure that they are informed of any real threat,” Tallahassee regulatory attorney David Dee says.  “Like everyone else I agree that the department has tried hard to address the comments they’ve had in the past, and I think we’re all appreciative of that.”

It was a common refrain among those who spoke at the most recent public comment hearing in Tallahassee—there are some pretty large buts coming, though. 

One of the most common concerns is applicability.  The rule, many commenters argue, seems to be written for land or water pollution.  Max Lee, president of the consulting firm Koogler and Associates, notification for air pollution could be tricky.

“Right now it just says if I emit more than 1000 pounds per 24 hour period of NOx, boom I have to notify my neighbors,” he says,  “Don’t know who those neighbors are yet, but I’m going to have to notify them.  However if I’ve got modeling that’s been done I can say well I didn’t impact even though I violated my permit limit.”

But predicting how air pollution might move can be expensive, and money is another major concern.  In Florida if a rule costs the private sector more than $1 million—directly or indirectly—it has to be ratified by the legislature.  The department says the rule shouldn’t trigger review but Stephen James from the Florida Association of Counties doesn’t agree.

“We are very concerned number one with the statement of estimated cost, we believe as many have indicated today, it is grossly understated,” James says.

And Mike Sole, vice president of state government affairs at Florida Power and Light objects to shifting responsibility for risk and response determinations to private businesses.  He used a hypothetical three person metal plating shop as an example.

“Again my three man metal plating shop does not have the technical expertise as to whether or not people should go on alternative water supply for when there’s only been a 10 gallon—or let’s use a 26 gallon oil spill.  They don’t have that expertise,” Sole says.

But to Bill Sagues, a retired teacher living in Monticello, that argument rings a bit hollow.

“It’s interesting that Florida power and light would be the one that would use that as an example when you’re talking about the largest regulated Industry in Florida,” Sagues says.  “So I understand their point and it probably is a good point, but mosaic fertilizer is not a three person plating operation.”

Sagues says for people like him living in rural communities a polluted well could leave their property worthless.  As the agency huddles to determine its final rule, the industries that will be affected are probably crossing their fingers.  If the changes they’re seeking don’t make it into the final draft administrative challenges could be next.