Florida Senate moves to boost environmental fines

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request to boost fines on environmental lawbreakers drew support Monday in its first legislative appearance.

With little comment, the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee unanimously supported the proposal (SB 1450), which would make numerous changes in the amounts and duration of penalties for violating Florida environmental laws.

Bill Sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said “Floridians deserve the strongest reasonable protections” and that many penalties the Department of Environmental Protection can impose haven’t been increased since 2001.

“Every three hours of every day of the week, seven days a week, of 365 days a year, there is a spill somewhere in Florida,” Gruters said. “We’re way past the time of not addressing this issue.”

Most of the changes would increase penalties by 50 percent. The civil penalty for dumping non-commercial litter, for example, would go from $100 to $150. Violating an order regarding coastal construction would increase from $10,000 to $15,000.

Also, the length of time certain penalties can be imposed would run until the violations are resolved by order or judgment. The duration change would be made by declaring each day an offense occurs as a separate offense.

DeSantis in September called for a 50 percent increase in fines for environmental violations. He labeled the existing structure a “slap on the wrist,” noting penalties for sewage spills are capped at $10,000 a day while pollutants are flowing.

“What we end up seeing happening is, you have some of these municipalities, it’s cheaper for them to pay a fine and spew all this sewage into the waterways, because it’s the cost of doing business,” DeSantis said when making the request. “They’d rather do that than invest in the infrastructure they need to make sure the waterways surrounding them are safe and clean.”

DeSantis wants the fines to continue being assessed until environmental harm is considered fixed or plans are worked out with the Department of Environmental Protection to address the issues.

The fines are part of DeSantis’ environmental wish list for legislators this year. He is expected to get a proposed $625 million for the Everglades, natural springs and water projects. He’s also seeking to establish a statewide office focused on sea-level rise and to create more electric-vehicle charging stations along major highways.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, has filed an environmental-fines measure (HB 1091) in the House, but it has not been heard in committees.

Fine unsuccessfully sought to raise the fines a year ago, a proposal that was aimed at Brevard County for a 2017 sewage spill into the Indian River Lagoon that lasted 35 days. Fine’s solution was to impose a $2 fee for every gallon of raw sewage released.

The Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties argued last year that increased fines on governments would eventually come from taxpayers and delay needed sewer upgrades.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.