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A Times Editorial

From watchdog to lapdog

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

Petroleum storage sites at the Port of Tampa have been polluting Tampa Bay since 1996. When it rains, heavy metals including arsenic, lead and mercury flow into the bay from the sites used by ChevronTexaco, Murphy Oil, Marathon Oil and others. It happened again last summer, and there is no end in sight.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is charged by law to protect our natural resources and to deny permits to polluters. Yet a review of these cases by Times staff writer Craig Pittman shows that DEP is in no hurry to resolve the problem.

DEP appeared to have gotten the oil companies' attention in 1999. The DEP district office in Tampa was ready to fine Murphy Oil more than $237,000 for three years' worth of violations, and to force it and the other companies to clean up the pollution. The companies claimed they weren't to blame, because the pollution was coming from the soil and not their storage tanks. So they did an end run around the local office and cut a deal with state DEP officials.

The companies got their permits to discharge wastewater from their property into the bay. In return, they agreed that if they polluted the bay again, they would study the problem to determine who was at fault. One DEP official said the agency was being "sensitive" to the companies because they said the pollution was "beyond their control." The lawyer representing Murphy Oil explained it this way: "It was just a matter of educating DEP."

Last year, the rains came and the pollution flowed into the bay once again. Instead of facing fines or cleanup costs, however, Marathon Oil got six months to submit a plan to study the source of the pollution. It did so in December, and now DEP has two months to decide whether it will approve the study. (That decision is still pending.) Then Marathon will have a year or more to do the study.

Meanwhile, the pollutants continue to pour into Tampa Bay. In too many cases, DEP has become a watchdog with rubber teeth.

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