Jeff Littlejohn: Environmental regulation is more than penalties
Published: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 4:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 4:39 p.m.
I've never been an educator, but I've known a lot of great teachers. Great teachers have a passion for reaching every one of their students, and I've seen them try over and over again, sometimes using different teaching techniques to get through to struggling kids. For teachers, the fundamental goal is the education of every student regardless of the circumstances.
At the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, we share a similar passion. We view any violation of environmental rules, and the environmental damage that can often occur as a result, failure. This is why we work diligently to prevent these violations from ever occurring in the first place.
Make no mistake –- when a failure has occurred, we believe that firm environmental action, including the assessment of financial penalties, may be needed to reduce the likelihood of a future violation. However, to measure the efforts of our staff only by the number and magnitude of the penalties collected as a result of these failures is frustrating to us. To continue to do so, year after year, without any apparent attempt to measure the results of our efforts shows a serious lack of understanding of our jobs and the fundamental goals of this agency.
If you really want to know how good a job we're doing, the first question to consider is our compliance rate. This would be like looking at the graduation rate or average standardized testing score of a school. It's how you tell an "A" school from a "C" school. This incredibly important question is constantly overlooked, and it certainly hasn't been reported to the public.
In Florida, our long-term compliance rate has typically been between 85 and 90 percent. That's the rate of inspections that revealed no violations, or only minor violations that caused no harm to the environment, such as a paperwork problem or a late monitoring report. Those numbers are above the national average, but as with a passionate educator, our incredible employees want to improve that rate.
When Secretary Herschel Vinyard and I came on board, increasing the compliance rate was an issue we explored right away. We learned that our some of our regional offices were using a slightly different approach with regulated facilities and this approach was resulting in higher compliance rates. They were placing a greater emphasis on education and outreach, spending more time out in the community and participating in activities that went beyond conducting formal inspections. They sought out and cultivated positive relationships with regulated facilities, with the goal of achieving better compliance. Like teachers who stay after school to work with a child to improve their classroom performance, we had Department staff going the extra mile to improve the environmental performance of regulated facilities.
Since this approach was proven to enhance environmental compliance, we sought to expand it to the rest of the state in 2012. Last year, our education and outreach efforts reached tens of thousands of people and businesses through free training on our regulations and how to comply with them. For example, in the Northeast District, the air regulatory program conducted nearly 100 site visits or workshops promoting compliance assistance, many of which were requested by property and business owners. Topics included the proper operation of paper mills, crematories and concrete batch plants.
The response was remarkable, and the results speak for themselves. Our significant compliance rate last year improved from 90 to 94 percent. Put another way, only six percent of facilities inspected revealed major violations of our regulations or were causing some kind of environmental harm, compared with 10 to 15 percent historically. We've never before come close to that kind of performance.
Now that you have a better understanding of what is really important at the Department, you can understand why I am very proud of our regulatory staff. Please understand that there isn't one employee at the Department who isn't striving to improve the environment. The thousands of committed employees at the Department are using sound science and are being encouraged to continue innovating in order to achieve even higher compliance rates in the future. That is the standard by which we want to be judged.
Jeff Littlejohn is deputy secretary of regulatory programs for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
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