Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Tuesday measures that include bigger fines for dumping pollutants into waterways and new rules for septic tanks and agricultural runoff, though environmentalists said the rules don’t go far enough.
One of the measures makes numerous changes in the amounts and duration of penalties for violating environmental laws. The other bill is based off recommendations from the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force and has been dubbed the “Clean Waterways Act.” Both take effect Wednesday.
The bill signings came a day after DeSantis approved a new $92.2 billion state budget that included $322 million for Everglades restoration, $50 million for natural springs, $25 million to fight algal blooms and red tide, and $160 million for statewide water-quality improvements. But he also vetoed about $1 billion from the budget, including cutting about $60 million in water and wastewater projects.
“The Clean Waterways Act had a promising start, but as it moved through the policymaking process it was watered down to the point of being ineffective,” Florida Conservation Voters Executive Director Aliki Moncrief said Tuesday. Moncrief added the law limits local communities from adopting measures to protect their waterways.
The bill prohibits local governments from providing legal rights to any plant, animal, body of water or other part of the natural environment unless authorized by the state.
In a news release, the Florida Springs Council, Sierra Club and St. Johns Riverkeeper accused DeSantis of ignoring the task force recommendations, such as “the development and implementation of a septic system inspection and monitoring program.”
But Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said the “comprehensive legislation” is the product of groups such as agriculture, utilities and homeowners working together.
Among the act’s changes: regulation of the 2.6 million septic tanks in the state will be moved from the Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection; utilities will be required to develop inspection, maintenance and replacement plans for their wastewater systems; and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs must perform on-site verification of agricultural “best management practices” every two years.
The other bill signed Tuesday increases most penalties by 50 percent for polluters. DeSantis in September called for a 50 percent increase in fines as part of his environmental wish list for the 2020 legislative session. He labeled the existing structure a “slap on the wrist,” noting penalties for sewage spills had been capped at $10,000 a day while pollutants were flowing.
“Most of the penalties that we have in law have basically been there for 20 years, and they really didn't pack the punch that they needed to,” DeSantis said Tuesday. “This bill not only increases civil and administrative penalties by 100 percent per sanitary sewer overflows, and 50 percent across the board for all other environmental crimes, it also authorizes the Department of Environmental Protection to assess daily penalties until a violation is addressed.”