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Businesses bucked Gov. Rick Scott’s rule to notify public about pollution

In April, workers cleaned up 341,000 gallons of raw sewage released because of a pipe break near neighborhoods south of Clermont.

Another 2,000 gallons containing water-purifying chemicals were spilled in June on county property near SeaWorld’s new Aquatica water park.

The two events were among more than two dozen pollution incidents in Central Florida in the first half of the year. None were reported to local media after complaints from industry associations led to a new 24-hour public notice requirement for pollution spills — sparked by a Polk County spill — to be overturned.

But the judge’s decision led to a new law that open-government advocate Barbara Petersen said is an improvement over the situation that existed before the short-lived requirement on polluters. The law allows the media and anyone else to sign up for alerts about pollution incidents, a process that didn’t previously exist.

While it’s not as good direct notification to the media, it’s “better than where we are now,” said Petersen, who supported the legislation.

It came about after an administrative law judge on Dec. 30 tossed out the rule that had been in place for just three months after business groups said the requirement to notify the media was an expensive burden on companies — an argument Petersen disputed.

“The fact that they just argue money and inconvenience is irrelevant to me,” said Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. “We don’t want a Flint, Michigan.”

In 2014, thousands of children in Flint were exposed to lead in drinking water, sparking a firestorm because the contamination wasn’t acknowledged for more than a year.

“It does not make sense that the public is not immediately notified when pollution incidents occur,” Scott said in a statement.

Less than a week later, Mosaic reported 97,000 gallons of phosphoric acid solution was sent to the wrong area, the Tampa Bay Times reported, and a news release was sent out.

But companies such as Wawa and RaceTrac — and industry groups representing more than 180,000 members — quickly assembled arguments against notifying the media.

Lawyers for the groups argued that it wasn’t a private company’s responsibility and “would impose a sustained adverse impact on Florida’s economy and job creation.”

RaceTrac lamented the cost of training its 3,100 employees in Florida to comply with the new rule.

But the state environmental agency countered that it wasn’t a major burden — and that costs would total $182,000 annually.

In response, industry groups challenged the rule and a judge agreed, overturning it as “an invalid exercise of its [the state’s] delegated authority.”

“We believe that it is the government agency’s role to gather the information and disseminate it to the media,” said Brewster Bevis, senior vice president of state and federal affairs for the Associated Industries of Florida, which filed the petition with other groups.

Aftert the ruling was tossed, state Rep. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, co-sponsored legislation requiring companies to notify the DEP of the release of any dangerous substance within 24 hours and the DEP to post the information online within 24 hours.

In addition, DEP is required to give local government agencies, the news media and public the option to sign up and receive pollution notices. The requirement took effect July 1.

“If you’re worried about things like the Mosaic spill there’s a process where you can be notified,” Petersen said.

Previously, pollution incidents had to be reported to DEP but often only became known to the public if someone made a public-records request.

Through June, more than two dozen pollution incidents were reported in Central Florida. Examples range from truck spills of no more than 50 gallons to pipe breaks in utility lines that spewed thousands of gallons of raw sewage.

Orange County Utilities notified the state of 18,500 gallons of wastewater, sewage and treated effluent discharged in places not permitted over a three-day period in January.

“They [DEP] have always been difficult getting information out of them,” Petersen said. “So now the onus is on the DEP, and how well they broadcast that this service is available.”

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