Following our Contact 5 Investigation into a multi-million dollar project on the Indian River Lagoon, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection now admits Florida Power and Light violated its permit by anchoring several thousand feet of floating pipe in the lagoon.
When Contact 5 first started looking into complaints about the project from homeowners, the DEP told us it was in "constant communication with FPL about the project." Contact 5 started requesting emails to see the evidence of the communications between FPL and DEP for ourselves. We haven't received the emails yet but we received a statement saying:
"DEP is aware that FPL violated the permit prior to any contact that our records indicate."
The big question is, what will Florida's DEP do about it?
FPL is running a new transmission line from the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant, under the Indian River Lagoon and out to a substation several miles away. FPL says the project costs $13,000,000 per mile and "Will help to to enhance electric service and reliability for our customers" according to a statement emailed to Contact 5 by a company representative.
"These pipes right here are the ones that they're not permitted to have in the Indian River Lagoon" said Dana Wade back on March 11 when he took a Contact 5 crew out on his pontoon boat to show us the massive pipes that appeared in the Lagoon overnight on February 16, according to the time stamp of one photo Wade provided. 4 massive pipes, each more than a thousand feet long, anchored into the bed of the Indian River Lagoon with large metal pilings. The pipes ran more than a thousand feet out of "Big Mud Creek", which is the channel they were permitted to be in, according to the DEP.
"Our greatest concern is just lack of enforcement on the part of DEP" said Drew Martin, Conservation Chair for the Sierra Club in St. Lucie County. "I was also very concerned just that it indicated that FPL was not paying attention to the permit," Martin added.
Florida Power and Light has refused several on-camera interview requests from Contact 5, but gave us this statement saying:
"The contractor made a construction adjustment" and "we were not aware of the position of the pipe until we were contacted by the DEP."
"Do you think that is acceptable?" asked Contact 5 Investigator Jared Werksma.
"It's not acceptable for the simple reason that whenever someone is issued a permit its their responsibility to monitor that permit" Martin replied.
Both the DEP and FPL claim they were unaware of the violation until Wade called the DEP himself on February 22, 6 days after Wade took his first photo of the pipes. Only then did DEP call FPL to ask why the pipes were outside of the permitted area. On March 16 the DEP told Contact 5, "DEP has been in regular communication with FPL since receiving the inquiry on February 22."
Even after Wade made the DEP aware of the FPL violation in the Indian River Lagoon, the violation was allowed to continue for another 3 weeks.
It wasn't until Monday, March 14, the night our first Contact 5 Investigation aired, that DEP sent us a one line email just before 5pm that read: "DEP is communicating with FPL and it's our understanding that the remaining (pipes) should be removed by the end of the day today, and the pilings should be removed by tomorrow."
Even that wasn't accurate. FPL didn't remove the pipes and pilings from the Indian River Lagoon until Wednesday March 16.
An FPL spokesman told Contact 5 "We have chopped the pipes and pulled them back into the permitted area. This will further slow down the project."
Until then FPL had been operating in the Indian River Lagoon in violation of Its DEP permit for a month with little or no action.
"We're very concerned that this shows an overall attitude at the DEP to not enforce their rules" said Martin.
"Some would say it's Don't Expect Protection" said Mark Pafford, head of the democratic caucus for the the Florida House.
"(the) Department of Environmental Protection has been just destroyed by the Governor," Pafford added.
State budget documents show since Governor Scott took office in 2010 more than 600 positions have been cut from Florida's DEP - from 3,551 in 2010 to 2,933 in 2016 and Contact 5 had to go back to 2012 to find the last time the DEP fined Florida Power and Light.
"They must enforce the law because their job is to protect the public. I would hope that they would fine FPL because by fining FPL it creates an incentive for FPL to do the right thing" Martin said.
Like FPL the DEP has also refused multiple requests for on-camera interviews for this story. We asked by phone and email if there will be a fine for the violations in St. Lucie County and were told: "DEP is currently reviewing the situation and is evaluating next steps. The department has enforcement discretion in cases of noncompliance."
We will let you know as soon as the DEP releases its decision.