By Carl Hiaasen, Miami Herald Columnist
One of the only positive things about having Rick Scott in Washington is that he can’t do as much damage to Florida ’s environment as a U.S. senator as he did when he was governor.
Unfortunately, one of his administration’s most flagrant schemes to expedite the destruction of wetlands remains very much alive — and is advancing unchallenged by Ron DeSantis, who ironically promotes himself as the “green governor.”
This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will hold online public hearings on Florida officials’ request to take over the federal program for issuing permits to build in sensitive wetlands.
Developers have been working for years to elbow the feds out of the way, for obvious reasons. State regulators are much easier to shove around.
Currently, under the Clean Water Act, any developer who wants to drain and fill a federal wetland needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The EPA can veto that permit if it believes that the project will harm fresh-water sources, for example, or destroy habitat critical to panthers and other endangered wildlife.
Both agencies are now poised to cede their authority to Florida ’s anemic Department of Environmental Protection, which Scott gutted in 2011 at the urging of lobbyists for developers.
More than 600 positions were cut at the DEP, which handles permit requests involving state-designated wetlands. Scott also took an ax to the staff of the regional water-management districts, after packing the governing boards with pro-development appointees.
Many who lost their jobs at DEP and the water districts were long-serving wetland experts, which was no accident. Most major developers hate environmental-impact reviews, so Scott’s solution was to dump the scientists who were most knowledgeable about environmental impacts.
His political mission was to make the permitting process for paving state wetlands as easy as buying a scratch-off ticket. The next logical target was Florida’s federal wetlands, and the Trump administration seems thrilled to hand them over.
The skeletonized DEP already is swamped with applications, and there’s no way it can effectively take on the permitting workload of the Army Corps and the EPA.
And that’s the dream scenario for Scott. The goal was never to help the DEP effectively protect the environment, but rather to transform the agency into a drive-through speed lane for developers.
Think about it. For a politically connected builder or resort company, it’s much easier to put pressure on some overworked department head in Tallahassee than it is to navigate the vast structure of the Army Corps or EPA in Washington.
In 2018, Florida’s Republican-led Legislature passed a bill that paved the way for Scott’s hungry grab of federal wetlands — “the Holy Grail,” in the words of one lobbyist for developers.
Hopeful conservationists asked DeSantis to veto the measure, but he didn’t. And this year, the DEP — his DEP —conveniently scheduled “public hearings” on the issue during the first surge of the pandemic, when most Floridians were preoccupied with not ending up in an ICU.
“Nonstop shenanigans,” says Tania Galloni, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm that has offices in Florida .
Galloni says state officials haven’t yet identified which federally designated wetlands they seek to control, but adds, “They are going to grab whatever they can.”
Meanwhile the Army Corps, which had asserted primary authority over certain important bodies of water, reportedly has been ordered by the Pentagon to pare that list and yield more to Florida.
The EPA has scheduled virtual hearings for Oct. 21 and Oct. 27. People can pre-register here. The Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0640.
You can also send in comments using that same docket code up until Nov. 2 at http://regulations.gov. The agency says it will make its final decision on the state’s application no later than Dec. 17.
There’s not much time left for the public to be heard, but that was the plan from the beginning. All that water and those wild places are yours, but nobody in charge truly yearns to hear your voice.
And if you’re waiting for our green governor to step forward, don’t hold your breath. Yellow is his true color when facing up to the big developers and lobbyists who are helping to bankroll his political future.
Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.