JACKSONVILLE, Fla. —
The pandemic has forced everyone to consider what it means to be an essential service. There is little question about police or health care workers and less consensus around pro wrestling events.
But one group that’s been sidelined for the past two months is the city of Jacksonville’s environmental inspectors. In that time, pollution enforcement cases have plummeted -- in some instances by as much as 98 percent.
“Unfortunately, our environment has been seen as ‘nonessential,’ and it think that’s a mistake,” says St. Johns Riverkeeper Executive Director Jimmy Orth.
Orth first realized that inspectors with the city’s Environmental Quality Division weren’t responding sometime in early April.
A surge of muddy water was polluting the otherwise clear waters of Fishing Creek – an apparent violation of sediment control laws.
“That was our first indication they were no longer working in the field,” Orth says. “We tried to get the city to engage and really was very unresponsive.”
In the end, Orth did his own inspection.” I went out an actually investigated and found the source was a JEA mainline,” he says.
JEA told First Coast News it was the result of a broken water service line. “Unfortunately, it was in a challenging spot near the drain,” a spokesperson noted.
Orth concedes that the inspectors for the city do hard and often thankless work. But he says their absence is having a detrimental impact.
Figures from the city’s Environmental Quality Division show enforcement over the past there months just a shadow of what it was this time last year. Sediment control violations – the kind Orth investigated -- dropped from 69 notices in this period last year to zero.
Overall notices to correct violations have dropped from 133 to two, and citations dropped from 21 to two.
“I don’t think we can fault them,” says Sierra Club of Northeast Florida Chair Janet Sanko. Given the pandemic, she says a brief cessation of enforcement isn’t surprising. “We don’t want any environmental deterioration and were really hoping that over the next two months their numbers improve.”
The city says some of the more urgent complaints have been routed to the Department of Environmental Protection and the St. Johns River Water Management District.
But Orth notes those agencies are also short-staffed. And he says the key to effective enforcement is the ability to see the violation in real-time.
“That’s key with these -- you have to get out there and discover the violation," he says. "You can’t just look after the fact at a picture and hold [polluters] accountable. Inspectors have to actually be there on-site and witness the violation.”
First Coast News was not able to get our questions to the city answered by press time. But the city did provide its own list questions and answers on this topic:
- How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted the EQD and its work? Like the rest of the City, non-essential work has stopped and most employees that are essential are only working the minimum needed to get their critical tasks done.
- With all employees having to work remotely, what has a typical day been like for you and other EQD employees? Each position is very different, so I do not believe there is a typical day for any of us. I concentrate most of my day in the morning to catch up with emails and submit reports that are due. Others work for a few hours in the morning, mid-day and then at the end of the day. While others only work when called. It really depends on their essential work type as to what they have been doing.
- Has any work had to be put on hold during the pandemic? Most inspections were put on hold during the emergency order and all routine, non-critical inspections were put on hold.
- Has there been an increase or decrease in pollution violations reported during the pandemic? Because we have not been conducting routine inspections, there are not as many documented pollution violations. There have been less service requests submitted to the MyJax system (please see attached spreadsheet).
- What is EQD's plan moving forward as the city moves forward with the reopening process? We are still working through plans and will be following guidance of the administration and our Director.
- If there is any sort of backlog on pollution violations or other environmentally significant issues, what is the plan to address those? We have a list of priority issues (not necessarily violations) that we will begin working through once inspections are started up again. The City has the MyJax system for service requests and we will work our way through the list of requests.
- This situation is quite different from any we have ever encountered and we are doing our best to keep our employees safe and following guidance from the administration on essential and non-essential work. We have other agencies that can also assist in responding to pollution issues such as the Water Management District and the Department of Environmental Protections and we have been working with them to help prioritize issues where appropriate.