Florida Rep. Randy Fine

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay

(The Center Square) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Tuesday that increases fines by 50 percent for wastewater discharges, effective Wednesday, adding a substantial penalty boost to his four-year, $2.5 billion environmental water quality plan.

The House and Senate unanimously approved House Bill 1091, sponsored by Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, which increases the $10,000 fine for spilling sewage into waterways to $15,000 a day.

The new law also allows the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to issue complaints as safety citations that cannot be resolved by court order or judgment, meaning each day in violation is a separate “new” offense until resolved.

“All these changes are really a strong step forward for Florida’s environment,” DeSantis said, noting the onus is now on utilities to invest in upgrades. “We needed a bill with penalties for violating environmental law.”

DeSantis called for a 50 percent increase in environmental violation fines in September, calling existing penalties a slap on the wrist and nothing more than a cost of doing business for violators, mostly municipal utilities.

According to the bill, municipal wastewater treatment plants have dumped 3 billion gallons of sewage illegally into Florida’s waterways the past decade.

Fine and Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who filed the bill’s Senate version, joined DeSantis for a signing ceremony Tuesday in Juno Beach. Both said their constituents are fed up suffering through sewage spills caused by utilities.

Fine said Brevard County officials are among those around the state who “prioritized spending millions on AstroTurf and antiques for lighthouse employee museums (but) failed to meet their responsibility to maintain our sewer system and protect the Indian River Lagoon.”

“Every three hours of every day of every week all year long we have a spill somewhere in Florida,” Gruters said, noting a Longboat Key sewage spill into Sarasota Bay was reported as the bill was being signed.

“It was long past time to say enough is enough,” he said. “This bill will not stop the spills, but it will increase the fines by 50 percent. It is time to hold polluters accountable, and we are going to make them pay with their wallets.”

Lawmakers considered increasing fines in 2019 with a provision that allowed municipalities to invest $2 in upgrades for every $1 in fines. That bill never advanced out of committee.

The 2020 bill did not include that provision, although DEP has the statutory authority to negotiate and waive fines under certain circumstances, such as a 2017 arrangement with Fort Lauderdale.

Facing $339,577 in fines, DEP stipulated instead the city develop a plan to implement $117.5 million in required sewer system repairs and improvements through 2026.

Sewage spills, however, continue to be a near daily event in Fort Lauderdale, which suffered six sewage spills in December, including one that dumped an estimated 126.9 million gallons of effluent – 75 million gallons more than Broward County’s previous largest spill.

“Thousands of spills and hundreds of millions of gallons illegally dumped each year. Enough. The message is clear today: if you illegally dump sewage into our waterways, you will be held accountable by the state,” Gruters said.

DeSantis praised the penalty boost as a pivotal component in his $2.5 billion environmental water quality plan, which will receive $625 million this year for the second of four years of funding.

As approved by lawmakers, the budget includes $322 million for Everglades restoration, $50 million for springs restoration, $160 million for water quality projects, $40 million for alternative water supply and $25 million to combat algal blooms and red tide.