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Legislature Moves To Abandon Environmental Clean-Up

Several decades ago, the town of Belleview, Florida was stunned to discover that a municipal drinking water wellfield was polluted with gasoline.  As media outlets began to cover the story, concern about contaminated drinking water became an issue on everyone’s mind, particularly in Florida where over 90% of our drinking water comes from underground.  As a result of the public outcry over Belleview’s water,  the Florida Legislature created the Inland Protection Trust Fund in 1986.  The Inland Protection Trust Fund, or IPTF as it is known, was given a dedicated funding source by placing a tax on every barrel of oil imported into the state.  In 2008, it was estimated that the tax would generate between $220 and $245 million in revenue.

Of course, as we becoming increasingly aware, our current Legislature has no problem raiding trust funds, even trust funds with dedicated sources of revenue such as the IPTF.  Many have said that the Legislature, and Governor Crist, have demonstrated the truly remarkable political skill of displaying no political backbone in dealing with the long-term funding problems the state faces by raiding trust funds, such as The Chiles Fund and IPTF to “solve” the state’s current budget crisis.  

According to petroleum clean-up experts Glenn MacGraw and Neeld Wilson, “[a]pproximately 10,224 sites have been cleaned up and closed since 1987, less than half in 20 years. There are 6,099 sites currently in some phase of cleanup, leaving approximately 8,296 sites awaiting cleanup. Based on this trend, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection estimates that it will take 30 years to close the sites funded by the IPTF. ”  And, yet, in the current legislative session, the Legislature has moved to virtually eliminate the program, cutting their current funding to a proposed $130 million (Senate) and $35 million (House).  Recent reports indicate that, in conference, the funding has been reduced to $10 million.

The Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association estimates that every $1 spent on petroleum clean up contributes $3 to the state’s economy.  It would therefore seem truly remarkable, therefore, that the Legislature is moving to cut at least $100 million from this program, something that will likely result in the elimination of a $300 million segment of the state’s economy.

In Florida, where deaths have occurred as a result of drinking petroleum contaminated drinking water, it is truly shocking that the Legislature would move to abandon the decades-long project to clean up the state.  Even perhaps more remarkable, however, is the fact that the Legislature is doing this to a project that already has a dedicated funding source.  The Legislature’s current arguments—that they will route funds from off-shore oil drilling to the IPTF—don’t hold water.  For starters, there is currently no revenue to speak of and the state cannot afford to put all projects currently underway on hold in the hopes that future revenues will support them.  What happens to the companies that are handling all of these projects in the meantime?  Secondly, the Legislature has demonstrated time and time again that they simply cannot be trusted to do what is truly in the long-term interest of the state.  Do they honestly expect us to believe that we should trust them to do the “right thing” with [potential] future revenues when they are currently raiding trust funds with dedicated revenue sources left and right?  Finally, it’s important to note that offshore drilling died in this legislative session.  In other words, there is no guarantee that offshore drilling will even exist in Florida, meaning that the Legislature has promised something that does not even exist—not an unusual scenario for the Florida Legislature.

Not everyone in Tallahassee is on-board with the efforts to abandon environmental clean-up in the state.  Alex Sink, the state’s CFO, has objected to the raid. “Adequately funding the Inland Protection Trust Fund is a smart investment — it provides long term cost savings by avoiding the potential costs of contaminated drinking water,” said CFO Sink.  “If the Legislature fails to adequately fund the Inland Protection Trust Fund and clean-up is stopped, contamination can spread, making any future cleanup extremely expensive and putting the state’s drinking water source at serious risk.  Holding back funding also wastes millions of dollars that are invested in clean-up projects that are currently underway.”  Sink also went on to say that “the Legislature should consider the long-term public health and economic consequences of stopping this clean-up program, instead of relying on this short-sighted plan to divert trust fund money.” 

According to an individual familiar with clean-up sites in North Florida, there are numerous sites throughout Duval County that are contaminated with leaking petroleum tanks.  In many cases, the contamination is so severe that engineers can determine contamination by simply smelling a soil sample removed from the site.  Of course, the sites are often found in some of our City’s most depressed neighborhoods, only serving to further highlight our failure to protect the most vulnerable among us.

One has to wonder what it will take for the Florida Legislature to be re-awakened to the risks of allowing contaminated drinking water to go untreated.  Is another Belleview incident in Florida’s future?

(A listing of local sites can be found here.)

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