September 26, 2016 – Tampa Bay Times
by Craig Pittman
For three weeks, Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials kept mum about a phosphate mine’s 300-foot-deep sinkhole that dumped 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the state’s aquifer. When they finally told the public earlier this month, officials said they went “above and beyond” what they were required to do.
Now Gov. Rick Scott has changed what’s required.
Effectively immediately, Scott announced Monday, he wants DEP to come up with a new rule requiring the owner or operator of any facility — including a city or county government — “to provide notification of incidents of pollution within 24 hours to DEP, local governments and the general public through the media.”
Scott said he was taking this step because of the delay in reporting the sinkhole incident to neighbors of the Mosaic plant in Mulberry and the delay in St. Petersburg officials reporting the tens of millions of gallons of sewage that the city’s aging wastewater system released into Tampa Bay after Hurricane Hermine passed by earlier this month.
“It does not make sense that the public is not immediately notified when pollution incidents occur,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “Today, I am demanding any business, county or city government responsible for a pollution incident to immediately tell the public. That is common sense and our residents deserve that.”
The governor said he will also propose legislation next year to turn that requirement into state law. The current law requires the public to be notified only if the contamination moves beyond the property owned by the company or entity that spilled the pollution.
Mosaic officials have since apologized to the public for keeping quiet for so long about what had happened. When the Tampa Bay Times asked the governor’s office Monday if the DEP would make a similar apology, or if DEP Secretary Jon Steverson might lose his job over the incident, Scott’s press secretary offered this statement:
“Secretary Steverson is focused on this issue at DEP and initiated an investigation immediately following learning of this incident,” Lauren Schenone said in an e-mail to the Times. “In this case, it made absolutely no sense that the public wasn’t immediately notified and I am glad we have made changes to fix that. Governor Scott is confident Secretary Steverson will continue to work to ensure our drinking water is safe.”
Scott is scheduled to tour the phosphate plant Tuesday morning and receive a briefing from officials with Mosaic, the world’s largest phosphate company, on what they have done so far to deal with the contamination. Reporters will not be allowed to accompany the governor, but his staff said he will answer some questions afterward.
Scott’s announcement on Monday came as local officials in South Florida accused his administration of hiding important information from the public about the ongoing Zika crisis.
The mayors of Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach said they were told by the Florida Department of Health to remain mum about the locations where Zika-carrying mosquitoes were found. State health officials had previously denied telling local officials to withhold that information from the public. [READ MORE]