Times wrongly slams EPC
I’ll bet certain special interests were meanly happy to see this headline & subhead in the St. Pete Times, casting aspersions on the Environmental Protection Commission:
The Environmental Protection Commission is doing a poor job of keeping track of its work.
Like a gossip tabloid making something innocuous sound sensational, the Times makes a bland audit sound as though it revealed shoddy bookkeeping which might be hiding something. They even misquote the auditors:
“It is unclear if they are protecting wetlands because of the incomplete data,” said Chad Lallemand, who helped prepare the report for auditor Jim Barnes.
Both Jim Barnes and Chad Lallemand tell me Lallemand never said this. The auditors have no doubt that EPC does protect wetlands. What is somewhat unclear is the extent to which they protect wetlands, because while much of the protection is documented, some simply cannot be.
As EPC Director Dr. Garrity told me, “It’s like asking the police how much crime they have prevented.”
EPC can and does count the acres of wetlands that have been impacted (legally or illegally), then replaced or mitigated through EPC regulation. But it’s impossible to know exactly how many acres of wetland impacts have been avoided due to EPC.
When a developer brings their plans to EPC for an initial review, who can say how many acres of wetland impacts they have already avoided, knowing that EPC would make them revise their plans had they shown certain impacts? How can EPC count all the acres of wetlands that would have been impacted if developers didn’t have to go through EPC reviews? Maybe some developers would have avoided some wetlands voluntarily, while some would have paved over every inch of wetlands that EPC protects, if they could get away with it.
EPC protects wetlands not only by enforcing regulations, but also by working together with builders, farmers and others in the early planning stages of projects, to help draw up plans that avoid wetland impacts in ways they may not have considered without the expertise of EPC’s engineers and hydrologists. If EPC suggests relocating an access road on an early pencil-draft plan, are they to take credit for saving a wetland that would have been impacted IF that road had finally been built over the wetland where it was first penciled in? Would the auditors then fault them for claiming too much success?
One of the conclusions in the county’s audit of the EPC is the suggestion to develop some performance measures to better account for the wetland impacts that are avoided due to EPC processes. As noted in the auditors’ report, and in Dr. Garrity’s attached response, EPC has recognized this need, and has already begun improving their performance measures.
So the Times turns this into an accusation of incomplete record keeping, and boosts it with a misquote suggesting that EPC may not be protecting wetlands at all.
Last summer, special interests almost succeeded in getting our county commission to eliminate EPC wetland protections. Citizens had to work feverishly to snatch the agency from the flames. Innuendo from the Times serves only to fan those flames which are still licking at our EPC.