No fine for FPL violation in Indian River Lagoon

Posted at 11:12 PM, Apr 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-13 23:40:43-04

After our Contact 5 Investigators exposed a multi-million dollar project in the Indian River Lagoon illegally, the Department of Environmental Protection responds. The question has been will the DEP fine the perpetrator, Florida Power and Light, for the first time since 2012?

The answer is no. FPL clearly violated its DEP permit - only removing more than a thousand feet of pipes and steel pilings from the Indian River Lagoon after our first Contact 5 story aired March 14, 2016. Yet, the DEP's only response is to "continue to monitor the project to ensure it is conducted in a manner that is protective of public safety and the environment", according to a statement emailed to Contact 5 by a DEP rep. Over the last month our investigators have found many reasons to question if that can be trusted.

According to the DEP, a complaint from Fort Pierce resident and avid boater Dana Wade, was the first time it was made aware of the FPL violation. The DEP says Wade called the complaint in on February 22, yet nothing was done.

"Why does it matter?" Contact 5's Jared Werksma asked Wade back in March.  "It matters because someone could get killed" Wade replied. "Someone's going to hit these pipes, get knocked out of their boat and get killed," he added.

When Contact 5 called the DEP three weeks later on March 11, a DEP rep replied by email that said in part: "The floating pipes are not specifically addressed in the permit."

But that turned out to be false. Contact 5 requested a copy of the permit which details exactly where the pipes should have been.

"The pipe shall be floated from A1A across Big Mud Creek and through Jurisdictional Mangroves", the permit states.

Those are all areas in a clearly marked channel to the West of FPL's St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant. However, the floating pipes ran more than a thousand feet out of the clearly marked channel into the center of the Indian River Lagoon. .

After Contact 5 informed the DEP of the incorrect information we were given we received another email saying in part: "While investigating consumer complaints we became aware the pipes had floated outside the permitted area", as if by accident.

But more than a thousand feet of floating pipes, and 5 metal pilings anchoring them in place made it clear they were there intentionally. It also became clear the DEP had no idea what was happening with the project.

"If DEP is not going to enforce the laws on the books we need someone to come in and make them do that,"  said Laura Reynolds from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Just one of the environmental groups asking the feds to step in and threatening suit against DEP and FPL. A 60 day notice issued by the coalition claims lack of action by FPL and oversight by DEP resulted in the polluting of Biscayne Bay by FPL's Turkey Point Power Plant.  Reynolds says a lack of environmental oversight has become epidemic in Florida and starts with a cozy relationship.    

"There have been a number of employees that worked for (DEP) and now work for Florida Power and Light and vise-versa. (DEP) is taking FPL at their word for all the data and everything that they're supplying to the public," Reynolds said.

Contact 5 requested all records of communications between FPL and DEP relating to the Indian River Lagoon violation. Despite the DEP telling Contact 5 it's been in "regular communication with FPL since the consumer complaint on February 22nd", the first record of communication DEP could provide was an email from March 2nd. An FPL rep say that's when the DEP called and requested photos of the pipes and pilings in violation. However, FPL's environmental specialist only emailed back 4 photos of pipes and pilings all inside the permitted area. 

An FPL rep told Contact 5 it's environmental specialist didn't have access to a boat to get pictures of the actual violation. If that's true FPL's specialist didn't think it was important to explain any of that in his email response to the DEP. The DEP says none of its people inspected the site in person until March 23rd, nine days after our first Contact 5 Investigation aired - a full seven days after the FPL reported to us that contractors "Chopped up the pipes, removed the pilings" and pulled them back into the permitted area. The DEP continues to refuse our formal requests by phone and email for an on camera interview. One such email interaction is below.

DEP: No one is available for an interview. I'll work on gathering the information for you additional questions.

Contact 5: DEP is a state agency. I'm sorry but "No one is available for an interview" is not an acceptable answer. We are happy to work around scheduling issues but these questions need to be answered. The interview will not take long but this story will drag on until we get someone from DEP on camera. Please help me get this done.

DEP: I will continue to answer your questions via email. As I previously said, I am working on gathering the information for your additional questions from last night as well as processing your records request.