Scott orders faster public notification after sinkhole dumps contamination into Floridan aquifer

Scott orders faster public notification after sinkhole dumps contamination into Floridan aquifer
Photo via WFLA
Gov. Rick Scott on Monday ordered new public notification rules as a result of a sewage spill in Pinellas County and a sinkhole south of Lakeland that sent toxins into the drinking-water supply.

Scott said he also will seek legislation next year to put the new water- and air-pollution notice requirements into law.

"It does not make sense that the public is not immediately notified when pollution incidents occur, and that is why I am directing (the Department of Environmental Protection) to immediately issue an emergency rule implementing strict requirements for public notification within 24 hours," Scott 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."

State Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, quickly announced Monday she would "spearhead" Scott's legislative proposal in the House.

"The public deserves notification when there are pollutants being introduced to our environment," Peters said in a prepared statement.

In addition to the 24-hour notification, Scott's order requires the responsible parties to notify the public within 48 hours of any potential health risks.

Under Scott's proposal to the Legislature, he wants to amend current law that now requires public announcements when pollution at a publicly or privately owned site is found to have moved off-site. Under the changes, Scott will ask for the public to be advised within 24 hours of a spill being detected and for new fines and penalties on violators.

Scott's announcement didn't specify the amount of pollution that would trigger a notification or how far the notification would extend.

U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a Tallahassee Democrat who is widely expected to run for governor in 2018, sent out of a statement Monday noting her calls for greater transparency and a public-records request she made about the state's response to the Central Florida sinkhole.

"I applaud the governor for recognizing the state made a huge mistake in keeping this toxic sinkhole secret from the public," Graham said. "I still believe there must be a full investigation —- not just into the cause of the sinkhole —- but into the state's response and why they attempted to cover up the incident for weeks."

It took three weeks for area residents to be notified that a sinkhole had opened within the Mosaic company's 1,600-acre New Wales phosphate processing plant. The Department of Environmental Protection had been advised within 24 hours.

The result of the sinkhole was that some 215 million gallons of contaminated water was dumped into the Floridan aquifer, which is one of the state's largest sources of fresh water.

Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land 'O Lakes, said in a statement he supports Scott's efforts.

"It is sad that it takes an emergency rule to ensure agencies do what is right," Corcoran said. "All areas of government must do all we can to ensure the public, local governments and DEP are all notified as soon as possible of any environmental danger, regardless of whose responsibility it is under the law."

Scott intends to visit the Mosaic site on Tuesday for an update from the company.

State legislators from the Tampa Bay region have already started a review of the sewage spill.

Heavy rains from Hurricane Hermine the first week of September overloaded St. Petersburg's sewer system, resulting in millions of gallons of sewage being backed up onto streets and into area waterways.

Last week, Scott directed the Department of Environmental Protection to investigate the St. Petersburg sewage spill and the state Department of Health to conduct its own testing on top of the efforts being done by the city.
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