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Politics

Commissioner says Hillsborough's EPC hurts business

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Published:   |   Updated: August 1, 2013 at 06:40 AM

TAMPA - A Hillsborough County commissioner has taken aim at the county's Environmental Protection Commission, accusing the agency of onerous and heavy- handed regulation that hurts local businesses.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham, in recent budget workshop, said the EPC was "again becoming an impediment" to business.

"These guys are creeping back into their old ways," Higginbotham said. "The folks at the Environmental Protection Commission are taking a step back and hurting us."

Higginbotham said later he was referring to two complaints he had received in a 10-day period. One was from Speedling Inc., a nursery operation in Sun City, whose president told Higginbotham the EPC was going to run the company "out of the county" with burdensome regulations.

The other complaint came from the Varn family, owners of the Rocking V. Ranch in Plant City, who resented the EPC limiting the number of cypress trees they could cut down in wetlands on their property.

Higginbotham, a pro-business conservative from Plant City, said he had previously been assured by Rick Garrity, the EPC executive director, that he wanted to be a "partner in the effort to grow the economy."

"Seems like he's slipping back," Higginbotham said.

Higginbotham's comments raised concerns among environmentalist activists, who regard the EPC, a semi-independent agency created by state statute, as sacrosanct.

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Terry Flott, a member of the United Citizens Action Network, or U-CAN, said Higginbotham's remarks reminded her of former Commissioner Brian Blair's efforts in 2007 to eliminate the EPC's wetlands division. A majority of commissioners voted with Blair to dissolve the wetlands regulators, but reversed course when angry EPC supporters filled the commission chambers.

"What really made me mad was him bringing stuff like this up at a budget workshop," Flott said. "To me that's nothing but intimidation and bullying. We're back to the days of Brian Blair."

Garrity, the EPC director, is in a sensitive position because the county commission also sits as the Environmental Protection Commission, making Higginbotham one of his bosses. When Blair tried to destroy the wetlands division, Garrity came up with a "hybrid" permitting model as a compromise to developers. The hybrid, while keeping wetlands protections stricter than state rules, would eliminate duplication between county and state regulatory agencies and streamline permitting to speed up development.

"We always appreciate feedback, especially from commissioners, and suggestions about what we can do better," Garrity said Tuesday. "Whenever commissioners have concerns we try to find out what they are and act on them."

A review of EPC records show that Speedling, the nursery operation in Sun City, has a long history of permit violations. In addition to the nursery, the company has a polystyrene manufacturing plant where it makes trays that hold the dirt and plant seedlings shipped to farmers and landscapers across the country.

Speedling also has a reverse osmosis plant that cleans water drawn from the ground for use in watering plants and in the polystyrene manufacturing operation. Ground water in the area is brackish and contains pollutants including radioactive elements.

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EPC monitors wastewater permits for the reverse osmosis effluent and for recycled water at the manufacturing plant, and an air permit for the boiler at the polystyrene plant.

Records show the plant had to enter into a consent order with EPC in 2011 because of violations of the wastewater permits. These included piping of wastewater to a nearby creek and discharges of wastewater from a fire suppression pond to the stormwater system.

Other violations were because the company didn't conduct necessary monitoring of discharged wastewater. In one span, the company missed 15 months of sampling for total suspended solids and turbidity, federally defined pollutant measurements of particles and haziness of water.

In a letter Garrity sent to commissioners Friday regarding Speedling, he said the company has "a history of non-compliance with their permits despite extensive EPC assistance in all areas, including compliance, enforcement and permitting."

The EPC fined Speedling $27,798 in civil penalties and administrative costs for the violations over six years. But the environmental agency reduced the fine to $8,680 in return for an agreement by Speedling to invest thousands in a pollution prevention project.

Each of the violations in the EPC files noted that the company had violated a state law or administrative code as well as county rules.

Yet Speedling's chief executive officer, Greg Davis, said the company has never received such intensive regulatory scrutiny in any of its other locations in the United States or overseas.

"They had really twisted us around and forced us into numerous unsustainable business practices when I got here" said Davis, who became CEO five years ago. "I said then and I say now, this is not sustainable. I told them I'd have to shut this part of the manufacturing down."

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Some of the company's violations were unpreventable, Davis said. These include periods when heavy rains overflowed tanks holding dirty process water. That's different, he maintained, than industries that discharge toxic metals and chemicals into surface waters.

"We're not creating pollutants," Davis said. "We're just trying to separate the water from the impurities, use the water and put the impurities back in the ground. We're not generating toxic waste; we're growing plants."

In the case of the Rocking V. Ranch, the EPC told the Varn family they could only harvest 50 percent of the cypress trees in a wetland area on the ranch. That's a much tougher regulation than in other Florida counties, which allow 90 percent of cypress trees to be harvested on farms and ranches.

The Varns could not be reached for comment, but Higginbotham said Martha Varn told him she needed to sell the timber to pay estate taxes after her husband's death.

Garrity said his agency has been "bending over backwards" to work with the Varn family members so they can harvest their timber.

"You can go into Pasco County and harvest 90 percent of the cypress trees, but our rule says we can't do that so that, so we offer a little bit better layer of protection," he said.

Developers have long resented the EPC's authority, saying the agency duplicates regulation by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

But supporters like the fact the EPC makes it harder for developers to fill wetlands by making them reconfigure building areas rather than allowing them to balance the damage by creating a wetland elsewhere.

Flott, the environmental activist, said county residents get a discount on federal flood insurance because of the EPC tough wetlands rule.

"I'm sorry for the widow woman," Flott said, referring to Martha Varn. "But what's the criteria going to be if they do this? If any poor widow woman calls up, they can do what they want? It's nuts."

msalinero@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8303

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