Sustainable Play Equipment

No.1 Xialin Bay, Qingtian

Zhejiang, China

+86 176 8231 2146

WhatsApp: 24/7 Customer Support

9:00 - 17:30 GMT

Online store always open

Paradise Squandered: Escambia County haunted by legacy of pollution – Pensacola News Journal

Despite Escambia County’s outward beauty, our community has long been plagued by pervasive pollution from industrial plants, landfills, septic tanks and the like. 
Pollution was so bad that in 1999, a special grand jury was convened to assess local air and water quality. The jury found that local regulators were falling down on the job, that local elected officials were serving corporations rather than citizens, and that we needed to take immediate action to stem the tide of toxins in our community.
The grand jury issued an array of recommendations to improve pollution control, environmental monitoring, government accountability and other issues, but 20 years later, we’re still seeing a lot of the same old problems.
In this special series, the News Journal will look at the state of our natural resources to help answer: Have we squandered paradise?
Sometimes, the water stings her skin.
Sometimes, she comes out of the water smelling like a rotten egg.
Sometimes, she frets about how much time she allowed her five children to spend in the water, before she learned it was the terminus point for an industrial mill’s waste.
But despite it all, Jackie Lane still swims in Perdido Bay.
“I’d hate to live on such a beautiful body of water and not swim,” she said.
A marine biologist, Lane has lived on the shores of the upper Perdido Bay since 1975. She and her late husband, Jim, built their home amid a swath of moss-covered trees a short walk from the bay’s banks.
For more than a decade, they waded and swam and fished and raised a family, paying little mind to the industrial paper mill to the north. That was, Lane said, until foam, muck and dead fish washed up to her property in late 1986 and propelled her into a life-long battle to keep pollution out of her backyard bay.
Lane said it’s been mostly a losing battle.
The paper mill — whose ownership has changed hands three times since Lane arrived— has perpetually struggled to meet the emission standards mandated by the state, regardless of its owner. Since the 1960s, the mill has been cited as a likely cause of excessive nutrients, depressed oxygen levels, high levels of bacteria, elevated conductance and other problems in Eleven Mile Creek and Perdido Bay.
Still, over the past 20 years alone, the mill’s owners have received approximately $14 million in tax breaks — a time frame when the mill has increased production but shed approximately 50% of its workforce. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has continually renewed and extended the mill’s operating permit regardless of whether it was in compliance.
Voicing her frustration with the whole system, Lane said, “They want you to think that they’re regulated. That the government is protecting you. They’re not.”
Escambia County certainly isn’t the only place in America with pollution problems, but the severity of our environmental issues would likely surprise folks who just know us for our beautiful beaches.
Each year in our area, approximately 35 million pounds of industrial waste are emitted into the air, discharged to local surface waters or deposited underground, according to data from the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection.
Currently, of 893 metropolitan areas across the U.S., the Pensacola area ranks No. 12 for the total toxic releases per square mile.
Our local landscape is pockmarked with chemical mills and plants that are still leeching toxins into our soil, creeks, bayous and bays decades after the owners packed up and moved on.
Citizens have long been at the front lines of the battle to safeguard our environment, and in 1999, citizens raised such vocal concern about the state of the local environment that then-State Attorney Curtis Golden — with approval from First Judicial Circuit Chief Judge John Kuder — assembled a special grand jury to review the area’s air and water quality.
After 10 months of research and expert testimony, the grand jury ultimately concluded what many had long alleged: “Regulators, in general, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, in particular, who were responsible for protecting, maintaining, and improving the environment, did not do so.”
The report noted that even though regulators sometimes disagreed about which specific factors were most significant in causing local pollution, they all knew the causes and effects of pollution in our community.
“Instead of acting to protect, maintain and improve the environment, regulators have done more studies, duplicating previous work,” the report said. “They have substituted studies for action, because studies are less costly, and less controversial, than acting to improve or restore the environment.”  
The grand jury ultimately issued 27 recommendations for the county to improve and protect its natural resources.
From the timely processing of permits and enforcement of regulations, to more robust sampling and monitoring protocols, to a recommended moratorium on new surface water discharges, to comprehensive stormwater drainage plans, to a call to make dereliction of duty by a public officer a criminal offense, the grand jury offered a wealth of suggestions intended to help the county clean up its act.
Many of the recommendations have been attempted or implemented to some degree, but the sweeping changes the grand jury likely envisioned haven’t come to pass.
We’ve had some big, bombastic environmental disasters like the Saufley Landfill fire that burned for approximately four months in 2005 and 2006, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 that sent 97% of the oil that washed ashore in Florida to Pensacola Beach and the 2017 International Paper spill explosion that covered nearby Cantonment neighborhoods in sticky, black debris. 
But in many instances, our most damaging environmental issues didn’t come with fires and flash and fury.
Historically, our biggest polluters have simply walked into government offices and applied for permits.
There are six Superfund sites in the county — areas that have been contaminated by heavy industry and marked for cleanup by the federal government. For context, there are seven states in the U.S that have six or fewer Superfund sites.
From 1997 to 2008, more than 400 households were permanently relocated from the Clarinda Triangle area in Pensacola because of concerns regarding dioxin and other pollutants.
Underground plumes of toxic chemicals have migrated into Bayou Texar, forcing the closure of some private irrigation wells and contamination of sediments in the bayou.
Unfortunately, the list of issues goes on and on.
“Escambia County is a greatly polluted place from historical mistakes and current ongoing mistakes,” said Linda Young, founder of the Florida Clean Water Network.
Still, government officials and environmental regulators stress that these are largely legacy issues from Pensacola’s history as one of Florida’s first industrialized cities.
As resources have allowed, municipalities, utilities and industries have built up a network of air scrubbers, water filtration systems, monitoring and sampling programs, restoration projects and other initiatives to help keep citizens safe and our natural resources clean.
“We’re continually marching forward with a series of programs that are incrementally making things better,” said Tim Day, Escambia County environmental programs manager.
We’ve made clear progress in some areas.
It took until 2012, but Emerald Coast Utilities Authority’s downtown sewage plant — dubbed “Old Stinky” by locals — was relocated, sparking a downtown development boom that is still picking up steam.
Additionally, ECUA has been working to help citizens remove or safely abandon thousands of septic tanks that leaked waste and bacteria into surface and ground waters. Likewise, the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County has been systematically removing underground petroleum tanks left behind by shuttered filling stations.
The city and county have leaned into efforts to improve the area’s stormwater infrastructure. 
Over the past five years, the city of Pensacola has invested $33 million into stormwater management projects, and previously invested heavily into box culverts to trap trash and debris that made its way into surface waters.
Escambia County has invested about $125 million in BP oil spill settlement funds into environmental projects, as well as close to $180 million in Local Option Sales Tax dollars on drainage and dirt road paving projects.
In a statement, current paper mill owner International Paper said, “In 2010, International Paper set 12 voluntary sustainability goals aimed at improving our impact on people and the planet. In alignment with these sustainability goals and with approval from (DEP), International Paper completed a comprehensive $70 million improvement project that upgraded the Pensacola mill’s effluent treatment plant, constructed a 10-mile pipeline for treated wastewater to eliminate discharge into Eleven Mile Creek, restored historic wetlands, and reduced water consumption through the use of municipal reclaim water.”
The DEP reports providing close to $118 million in loans and grants related to water quality projects in Escambia County.
Jessica Bibza, the National Wildlife Foundation’s Florida and Alabama policy specialist, said she believes overall, Escambia County has turned a corner.
“(After the grand jury report) I think a light bulb went off, and there was a concerted effort to invest in projects and programs and efforts that will help environment water quality and legacy issues,” Bibza said. “… I don’t buy into the ‘corrupt Escambia County’ theory at all. There may be some lingering old ways of doing business, but I see a lot of people who are really passionate about improving the county and the county’s water.”
Many local citizens and environmentalists allege that too often, government entities only take action when problems get too big to ignore, and even then are rarely effective in tackling root causes or holding polluters accountable.
Not all of our troubles are behind us, however.
Take for instance the Wedgewood area, a middle-class black neighborhood that found itself with a new landfill for a neighbor in 1990.
As the years have passed, residents began complaining that the landfill that was polluting their groundwater and air, reducing their quality of life and property values, and causing respiratory illness and cancer.
In 2011, the landfill was found in violation for storing unauthorized wastes and failing to have a valid remedial action plan. Over the next few years, the facility continued to rack up violations for contaminating ground and surface waters, failing to reduce “objectionable odors” and failing to have financial assurances in place for corrective actions.  
After years of legal wrangling, the landfill’s permit was revoked in 2015. In 2016, the DEP was granted a judgement requiring the landfill owners to provide $566,000 in financial assurances for closing the landfill and $38,000, plus interest, in fines. To date, the contaminants on the landfill haven’t been properly contained and DEP is still seeking payment.
Separately in Santa Rosa County, it took months of public badgering to get the local government, the DEP and the Department of Transportation to take action on citizen concerns of red clay being washed into Indian Bayou during a state road project.
And in Perdido Bay, citizens have spent decades calling for the owners of the International Paper mill to come into full compliance with the Clean Water Act.
Lane, who is head of the Friends of Perdido Bay environmental group, said, “we’re not fighting the mill, we’re fighting the government.”
A consistent complaint remains among citizens that officials are still prone to putting industry ahead of citizens, to taking a reactive approach to conservation and enforcement, and to obfuscating the true extent of our environmental issues.
A common refrain from area leadership is that local industries comply with state and federal standards.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online website indicates there are 51 facilities in Escambia County that have violated the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act or other environmental standards within the past three years.
The list includes all three of the county’s biggest dischargers — Ascend Performance Materials, International Paper and Gulf Power’s Crist Plant — and several municipal facilities including ECUA and the town of Century’s wastewater treatment plants and Escambia County’s solid waste management plant.
Tracking state-level violations is a much more difficult process, as the DEP’s public and official database “OCULUS” is notoriously nightmarish to navigate even for those who know specifically what they are looking for.
The Northwest Florida District of the DEP declined multiple requests to be interviewed by the News Journal, but sent emailed responses to inquiries about its responsiveness to the 1999 grand jury recommendations.
“The department takes its mission to protect, conserve and manage Florida’s natural resources and enforce its environmental laws very seriously,” a statement from the agency said. “We are tasked with the important responsibility of ensuring our regulated facilities operate in a manner that is protective of the environment. Along with state and federal rules and statutes, permits issued by DEP establish criteria and conditions that help protect and preserve Florida’s air and water quality while also supporting a vibrant economy.”  
Still, alongside the many environment-specific recommendations the grand jury made in 1999, several recommendations were aimed at DEP processes and culture.
The report notes that state and federal law allows industries to continue operating beyond the life of their original permit — regardless of whether they are in compliance — as long as they are timely in applying to renew their permit. Arguing that the process allowed polluters to operate in perpetuity, the grand jury noted that at the time of its report in 1999, the paper mill was on a state permit that had been issued in 1982 and scheduled to expire in 1987.
Not much has changed today, as the mill is operating on a 2010 permit that was set to expire in 2015, but was recently “administratively continued” into 2020.
Another issue raised in the report is that DEP uses compliance monitoring to measure the success of its air and water pollution control systems, but the monitoring only determines compliance with permit conditions and not the actual health of, or risk to, the populace or the environment.
“When we speak in terms of water quality, in broad stokes one of the very first things you look at is nutrient levels,” Wade Jeffrey, a distinguished professor of the University of West Florida and director of the university’s Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation, said in explaining the purpose and limitations of sampling.
“Water clarity can be a real critical component, oxygen is another big one, and there are others, but it doesn’t get into looking for specific toxins. So if you’re really paranoid and worried about a particular pollutant, standard water quality measures don’t (look for) that.”
Many local environmentalists are deeply concerned about contaminants for which standard testing may not be screening. 
Young, with the Florida Clean Water Network, long championed for regulation of PFOA and PFOS, a dangerous toxin commonly found in firefighting foams. The DEP has “cleanup target levels” for the substances, but no formal regulations.
In a recent report, Washington nonprofit corporation Environmental Working Group released a drinking water report that claimed that while ECUA is within all state and federal drinking water standards there are eight contaminants — including PFOA and PFOS — that exceed standards the organization recommends. 
Barbara Albrecht, a marine biologist and a longtime member of the Bream Fisherman’s Association, raised concerns about a lack of transparency regarding what’s in our environment and how it’s monitored. 
Between McDavid Creek at the north end of the county and Pensacola and Perdido bays in the south, there are 14 local water bodies listed on the DEP’s “impaired” list
Standing near the shore of Bruce Beach — a downtown park that has recently been reclaimed for public use — Albrecht noted that despite plans to redevelop the area into a major community park, no one is talking about the fact that the area is next door to the former site of ECUA’s old wastewater treatment plant, and the water is still plagued by high levels of bacteria.
“If I don’t know the history, I’m gonna come out here and go fishing,” Albrecht said. “I’m gonna catch something, and I’m going to go home and eat it. But if I saw a sign that said ‘Catch fish but release because we’re treating this area for water quality issues,’ that would be honest. You can find that information on the Department of Health’s website, but it’s buried. Why?”
And Lane is worried about what’s below the surface of her backyard bay, particularly dioxin and heavy metals she said are accumulating in sludge that sinks to the bottom and isn’t being tested.
Lane runs a website and a regular newsletter for citizens and neighbors who are interested in the health of Perdido Bay, keeping them updated on pH levels, sampling results and historical data. 
She’s been watching with interest to see if new standards DEP has asked of International Paper — including a $131,000 settlement and $1,000 per day fines when the mill is in violation — actually stick.
Lane acknowledges that industry is a necessity, and pollution was an unfortunate byproduct of things we need like electricity, nylon, roads and, yes, paper.
But still, “Living at the end of the pipe changes your outlook totally,” Lane said. “People say we need paper, and we do, but not like this.”
Studio 850, a non-partisan, citizen-led journalism initiative, has been investigating the history of Perdido Bay in a multi-part documentary called “Have We Lost Perdido Bay?
The documentary features interviews with independent scientists and people who have spent years living on the bay and believe it’s in dire shape. That notion has sparked fierce resistance from local government, particularly Escambia County Commissioners Doug Underhill and Jeff Bergosh, who have set out to debunk the group’s work.
Bergosh toured International Paper’s mill in Cantonment — long believed to the chief source of the bay’s contamination — and later posted photos of himself having a successful day crabbing in the bay.
Underhill made his point by drinking a glass of saltwater from the bay.
Nonetheless, there is no question that the bay has water quality issues.
The Northwest Florida Water Management District issued a Surface Water Improvement and Management plan for the Perdido River and Bay in October 2017.
The SWIM plan indicates that DEP has broken the the Perdido River and Bay watershed into 72 distinct sections known as segments.      
DEP had identified 27 impaired segments with 32 total impairments, including 22 segments for mercury in fish tissue, six segments for bacteria (five for fecal coliforms and one for number of beach advisories), one segment for turbidity (cloudiness), and three segments for dissolved oxygen. Some segments had more than one pollutant. 
The upper bay is currently on the DEP’s list of “impaired” water bodies because samples have repeatedly returned high levels of enterococci bacteria. Enterococci are not typically considered harmful to humans, but their presence may be an indicator for other disease-causing agents such as viruses, bacteria and protozoa.
A 1993 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study of sediment toxicity found the Perdido Bay system was generally free of toxic compounds, but noted that certain segments were contaminated with toxic organic compounds and metals — to include high levels of the carcinogen dioxide in Eleven Mile Creek’s sediment.
Today, the bay is considered a high-priority for a total maximum daily load study, which would determine the levels of various contaminants the bay can safely absorb.
Escambia County staff have been adamant that water quality in the bay has been improving in recent years.
Despite the concerns of community-driven groups like Friends of Perdido Bay and Studio 850, the county’s top scientist, Chips Kirschenfeld, director of the Department of Natural Resources Management, said there is nothing in recent data that gives him any concerns.
“Yes, IP has water quality issues,” he said. “Certainly, we get the annual reports and I go over those, and I share that data with the county administrator. I tell them about any water quality violations, and I’m fair about it and I point out that ‘yes, there are these violations, but they are at the end of the pipe that discharges into the wetlands.’ It travels through 14,000 feet, 2.5 miles of wetlands where it receives additional treatment before it gets to Perdido Bay.”
He emphasized, “All of the data that I’ve seen is acceptable, with no violations of any standards that would make it unsafe for swimming and recreational use.”
For the uninitiated, Perdido Bay is a shallow, vaguely hour-glass shaped water body on the Florida-Alabama border. Its upper bay and lower bay are split roughly in half by U.S. 98. The upper bay doesn’t “flush” well, meaning things that wind up in the bay tend to stay there rather than get washed out into the Gulf of Mexico.
The bay is fed primarily from the northwest by the freshwater Perdido River, but a smaller stream, Eleven Mile Creek, terminates at the north-northeastern tip of the bay.
When the paper mill first opened in 1941 as the Florida Pulp and Paper Co., the mill’s effluent was discharged directly into Eleven Mile Creek. This continued until 2012, when International Paper completed a 10-mile pipeline that feeds effluent south into a 1,400-acre treatment wetland. There, the effluent meanders through the wetlands over three to four days before eventually flowing into lower Eleven Mile Creek and then to the upper bay.
“It is important to note that regulatory compliance is demonstrated at the mill site, prior to discharge to the effluent transmission pipeline,” IP noted in a written statement to the News Journal. “The wetlands are not relied upon for primary treatment; however, they do add value to the overall system by further refining effluent quality.”
The shoreline around the bay is dotted with little communities and subdivisions — Bay Forest, Ramsey Beach, Perdido Terrace and so on — and from his new dock in Ramsey Beach, Steve Swiler can see it all.
A Louisiana native with a big personality, a slight Cajun accent and a passion for LSU football, Swiler and his wife, Connie, like to tie inflatable chairs to their dock and melt into the water.
“The water, the beauty of it all,” Swiler said, describing what brought his family to Ramsey Beach five years ago. “It’s just beautiful out here.”
He didn’t know about the bay’s history when he moved in, and it doesn’t bother him much. Swiler is president of the area homeowner’s association, and he champions the neighborhood as an indisputably great place to live.
Having a beer on the dock with his neighbor John Schleich, an elder statesman of the community, there was a faint tension as Schleich gave a much bleaker assessment of the bay.
Schleich has lived in Ramsey Beach since 1985, and in the late ’80s he was a part of a fleet of Friends of Perdido Bay volunteers who would go out on boats and collect samples at monitoring stations around the bay. He said he remembers local fisherman catching flounder and redfish from their docks, but as time went on they had to take boats out of Perdido Bay to bring in decent hauls.
“My wife wouldn’t swim in it,” Schleich said of the upper bay. “She wouldn’t eat the fish out of it. We had a son who was 5 or 6 at the time, and she wouldn’t let him swim in it.”
Swiler stressed that he and Connie weren’t afraid to go in, and they agreed they sometimes see dolphins breach the flat, glassy surface or bait fish swimming underfoot.
Still, Connie said, “I would like to know more. If there is pollution, where it comes from and if there’s any danger. I’m in it all the time, so I want to know about it.”
At the time a grand jury reviewed Escambia County’s air and water quality back in 1999, the permit on Champion International’s paper mill was supposed to have expired 12 years prior.
“Through all 12 years … Champion has not complied with state water quality standards and permit conditions,” the grand jury noted in its final report.
Nonetheless, the permit was effectively transferred over to a new owner, International Paper, which today is operating on a permit that was issued in 2010 and scheduled to expire in 2015. It has been “administratively continued” through at least 2020 — despite the fact the paper mill is still not in compliance.
The state has proposed charging IP $131,000 in civil penalties, and an additional penalty of $1,000 per day for each day the mill is not in compliance. The DEP and IP remain in negotiations regarding the terms of the consent order.
“That should be interesting,” Jackie Lane, president of the Friends of Perdido Bay, said of the negotiations. Whether the state will institute regulations with some proverbial teeth, “that will be the litmus test.”
The 1999 grand jury dedicated a large chunk of its final report to the paper mill, noting its review of DEP records revealed “neither (previous mill owners) Champion, nor St. Regis, ever fully met state water quality standards. We found instead a pattern of violations, studies and promises to improve, followed by more violations, more studies and more promises and so forth — all of which was accommodated and or constructively approved by (state regulators).”   
The DEP declined multiple request for an interview with the News Journal, but issued written responses to general questions. The agency noted, “along with state and federal rules and statutes, permits issued by DEP establish criteria and conditions that help protect and preserve Florida’s air and water quality while also supporting a vibrant economy.” 
The mill has historically been the biggest employers in the Cantonment area, and in 1999 it reportedly employed about 1,200 people, provided approximately $80 million in payroll and paid $3.5 million in taxes to Escambia County.
Today, the Pensacola mill employs more than 500 team members and 100 daily onsite contractors, according to International Paper. The total economic impact is estimated to be $300 million, with an annual payroll of $54 million. The mill contributes more than $3.7 million annually in state and local taxes.
The mill is also a critical customer of local timber growers. A 2017 economic impact study for the Florida Forestry Association says Escambia County’s forestry industry creates more than 5,600 jobs and $38 million in state and local taxes.
According to records and estimates from the Escambia County Property Appraiser’s Office, the mill has seen three tax hefty tax exemptions since 1999 for “new” operations.
In 1999, the mill received a seven-year, approximately $1.2 million Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption for improvements that increased production by 66,500 tons and added 25 new jobs.
There was another $1.8 million EDATE in 2001 when IP expanded operations at a McDavid facility, but the exemption was terminated early when IP sold the facility.
In 2008, IP was granted a 10-year EDATE allowing the company to avoid approximately $11 million in taxes when it expanded production to include a new line for brown rolled paper products. 
The mill is a cultural touchstone for many residents whose fathers and grandfathers worked in the facility, delivered or harvested lumber. Mill staff can often be found at local ribbon cuttings and fundraisers.
“The mill has been actively involved in the local community, helping International Paper’s goal to protect and improve the lives of team members and the communities where we live and work by focusing on our signature causes of education, hunger, health and wellness, and disaster relief,” the company’s statement said. “Over the last five years, the IP and the Pensacola Mill has contributed close to $600,000 to organizations in Escambia County. IP provides impactful assistance, face-to-face interactions and offers resources for our community beyond just financial contributions.”
Residents, environmental regulators, mill representatives. politicians and scientists have disputed if and how much pollution the mill causes since the 1960s.
In terms of life in the bay, a National Wetlands Research Center study found the Perdido Bay lost roughly 75% of its seagrass beds between 1940 and 1992 — a decrease from 1,204 acres to 319 acres —  more than any other bay on the Gulf Coast, according to the grand jury report.
The grand jury also noted various sources had reported declines in the quantity and diversity of sea-bed dwelling organisms like marine worms, snails and bivalves.
In 2014, the county implemented the Eleven Mile Creek Bacteria Pollution Control Plan which includes monthly monitoring at six points along Eleven Mile Creek for bacteria, temperature, pH, specific conductance, dissolved oxygen, dissolved oxygen saturation and turbidity (cloudiness). All of the points are above the paper mill’s treatment wetland.
In 2018, the Friends of Perdido Bay, a community organization dedicated to protecting the watershed, commissioned an ecological survey of the bay.
The surveyor, a consulting and professional services firm called Cardno, took bottom samples from upper Perdido Bay and nearby Tee and Wicker Lakes, as well as trawled the bodies of water for life.
Cardno reported a low abundance of macroinvertebrates at both the bay and lake stations. Trawling produced an abundance of juvenile spot fish, and small quantities of other aquatic life such as brown shrimp, the gulf menhaden and the bay anchovy.
Cardno’s report also noted that at depths below 1.5 meters (about five feet) the level of dissolved oxygen in upper Perdido Bay decreased rapidly, while the level of salinity increased rapidly.
“Ponar (bottom) grab samples, when brought to the surface, expressed a strong hydrogen sulfide (H2S) odor,” the report said. “Collectively, this information strongly suggests that bottom sediments within the Upper Bay were in a near anoxic state during the period of sampling.”
Put simply, the surveyors found there was little to no oxygen on the bottom of the bay, which limits the potential for life there.  
The report listed a number of factors that could have contributed to the survey results, from spawning cycles, to the seasonal warming of estuarine waters, to extreme fluctuations in salinity.
The report advised that a single point-in-time survey was not enough data to draw any conclusions and there needed to be more ongoing studies coupled with historical data to establish any meaningful trends.
Still, the abundance of fish caught has been cited by Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill and senior scientist Chips Kirschenfeld as evidence the bay’s health is improving, and claims of the bay’s death were greatly exaggerated.
“They remember the way it was 25 years ago,” Kirschenfeld said. “I was one of the people making these kinds of statements 25 years, ago. But nature has a wonderful way of healing themselves, if we take away the impacts and problems, which is what we’ve done over the last 20 years.”
Lane however, noted that the lack of diversity in the bay was troubling, and she said it would be comparable to going into your backyard and finding an abundance of squirrels, but no birds or worms, or bugs, or other life. 
She said that while there’s been sampling of the water quality, there was no monitoring of sludge that was settling at the bottom of the bay. 
“That stuff does not break down, it’s going to be there forever,” she said. “These mills have never controlled their sludges. They’ve never been made to.”
Kirschenfeld said there is no one “canary in the coal mine” that could provide a simple litmus test for whether or not Perdido Bay is healthy.
There have been dozens of studies over the decades, but they’ve largely been siloed affairs that have ended up on storage shelves.
“One would have to compile numerous studies that have been been done by DEP, the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), the Northwest Florida Water Management District and monitoring data that (IP environmental consultants) Nutter and Associates collects. Take all of that data and look through it all, try to come up with a conclusion based on that data.”
Still, local stakeholders are hopeful a new program may be able to do just that.
In 2018, the EPA gave Escambia County $2 million in grant funding to establish the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program, a collaborative program that will bring together a consortium of local, state and federal experts to try and determine how to protect and restore the two estuary systems.
The initiative is off to a bit of a rocky start, as the director of the program, Jim Trifilio suddenly announced his resignation.
Jessica Bibza, chair of the programs technical committee, said the organization’s will soldier on, and hopefully add some clarity to a discussion of Perdido Key she believes has drifted too much into hyperbole.
“We’re hoping to do an inventory of a bunch of these plans and identify the common themes,” Bibza said. “That’s where we’re going to start, at the end of the first day, with yet another report that is going to list these priorities and recommend grant projects.”
She continued, “But the next day, what we’re going to need is local government to come forward and say, ‘we’re going to take on this one and commit to making it happen. We’ll have to have the continued commitment from local government, but we got this far with really great support from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.”
An Escambia County grand jury in 1999 stated in no uncertain terms: the people who were supposed to be protecting the environment were failing.
The grand jury’s 120-page final report accused regulators of ignoring and concealing violations, of bowing to industry and business rather than serving the public, of squandering the area’s precious resources for fleeting gain and of mocking and maligning the citizens’ groups that tried to fill the void left by government inaction.
The grand jury made 27 recommendations for improving the state of our environment, which can generally be divided into four categories: policy, monitoring, pollution control and accountability. Most were directed at the Department of Environmental Protection, though some were applicable to local government, state legislators and even the public at large.
The pollution control recommendations are probably of the most importance to most citizens, and unfortunately, the most complex to gauge and implement.
Historically, the mantra for dealing with dirty industry was “the solution to pollution is dilution.” It was essentially a theory that we could dump industrial waste into rivers, bays and lakes, and the water bodies were too big and self-replenishing to suffer any substantial harm.
Of course, many now argue that diluting contaminants isn’t the same as deleting them, and the accumulation of toxins in our bays, beaches and bayous has done immense harm over time.
“One of the issues with being one of the oldest communities in Florida is ultimately we saw development ahead of a lot of other areas,” said Tim Day, Escambia County environmental programs manager. “Our waterways were where you industrialized, because that’s where your transportation routes were.”
Today, the DEP’s list of impaired waterways includes 14 Escambia County water bodies, to include northern and southern Escambia Bay, the northern and middle segments of Pensacola Bay, upper Perdido Bay and many others. 
Additionally, a DEP water quality map indicates most of our local surface waters — bayous Chico, Texar and Marcus, Carpenter Creek, Eleven Mile Creek and many more — fall below state standards and struggle with issues like high bacteria levels, low oxygen levels and excessive nutrient levels.
Many of these issues can be traced back to the many chemical treating plants that have historically dotted the local landscape. We currently have six Superfund sites in Escambia County, highly contaminated former industry sites where decades of processing and manufacturing stained the underlying soil and groundwater with toxins.
One of the grand jury recommendations in 1999 was that the DEP calculate the “total maximum daily loads” for local impaired water bodies — the threshold limits on pollutants for individual water bodies.
Between 2008 and 2014, the DEP developed TMDLs for the Bayou Chico Watershed, Escambia Bay and Perdido Bay, Eleven Mile, Ten Mile and Carpenter’s creeks and others.
In 2011, the DEP and numerous partners completed the Bayou Chico Basin Management Action Plan, more than 50 projects intended to achieve restoration of the watershed, including Jones Creek, Jackson Creek, Maggie’s Ditch, Bayou Chico Beach and Sanders Beach.
“To a certain extent, we do still deal with those legacy contaminants,” said Chips Kirschenfeld, the county’s senior scientist and head of the Department of Natural Resources Management.
“For example, one of the projects we’re working on now is to clean up the contaminated sediments in Bayou Chico. That’s one of the BP-funded projects. Those contaminants go back 100 years probably, and here we are today, we’re going to be spending $20 million probably before it’s all done, maybe more, to try to correct those sins of the past.” 
2018 annual report on the statewide status of BMAP, TMDL and other initiatives, reported that from August 2011 through December 2018, 83 Bayou Chico projects had been reported as completed. The initiatives have ranged from dredging, to stormwater improvements at nearby parks, to an environmental symposium at the University of West Florida.
Nonetheless, beach advisories — health warnings issued in response to elevated levels of bacteria, algal blooms and other problems — are used as a gauge for BMAP efficacy. The annual report indicates that every year between Jan. 1, 2010, and June 30, 2018, Bayou Chico Beach exceeded the allowable 20 days of beach advisories per year.
Sanders Beach exceeded the number of advisory days allowed twice in the 7.5-year span.
Linda Young, the former director of the Florida Clean Water Network, has repeatedly sued at the state and federal level for tougher water quality regulations. She believes that for all the talk of standards and protections, regulators aren’t proactive enough at preventing problems, or tough enough on polluters to solve problems when they are identified.
For all the recent activity to battle algae blooms in South Florida, the problem was a product of years and years of inaction.
She said for regulators to take any meaningful action at a polluted watershed, “It has to have pretty much collapsed.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Toxics Release Inventory, the Pensacola metro area currently has the country’s 12th highest rate of toxic releases per square mile.
The vast majority of these releases come from a handful of heavy industries in Cantonment: Ascend Performance Materials, a nylon manufacturing plant; the International Paper paper mill; and Gulf Power’s Crist electric plant.
Those industries, along with a few others, release about 35 million pounds of waste each year. According to officials, upward of 95% of chemicals are treated before the waste is released, but emissions still contain potentially harmful substances such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methanol and formaldehyde.
Water emissions may also contain nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrient-rich materials that can feed algae blooms.
In 1999, the grand jury recommended that DEP attempt to cut down on pollution by refusing to grant any new expanded or relocated waste discharges in Escambia County.
While DEP has permitted two new discharges in the intervening 20 years, the agency reports there has been a net decrease in discharge points.
There were 11 permitted discharges within Escambia County in 1999, five of which are no longer in operation.
Naval Air Station Pensacola connected its wastewater treatment facility to the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority’s in 2009; the Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant was relocated in 2012; and the respective discharges of Saufley Field Sewage Treatment Plant, Westinghouse Electric Company LLC and Nitrous Oxide Corp. have all been closed or diverted into other wastewater treatment systems.
The two new discharges are a new central water reclamation facility that was permitted in 2007 to replace the Main Street plant, and a new ECUA subaqueous cleaning line for potable water mains.
Five of the remaining dischargers have improved their treatment processes since 1999, according to the DEP (the department is currently processing a new permit for the sixth discharger, the town of Century).
International Paper discharged its effluent directly into Eleven Mile Creek at the time of the grand jury report, but has since installed an approximately 1,300-acre wetland intended to filter its effluent before it hits the river. 
Nonetheless, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports International Paper has been in violation of the Clean Water Act for 11 of the past 12 quarters.
In regards to Ascend, the DEP reports it issued an administrative order in 2001 that prompted Solutia to eliminate the surface water discharge of wastewater from multiple points within its facility, resulting in a non-process wastewater only discharge to surface water. 
However, Ascend Performance Materials has been in noncompliance with the Clean Air Act for eight of the past 12 quarters and in noncompliance with the Clean Water Act for seven of the past 12 quarters, according to the EPA. 
Gulf Power’s 2018 permit included increased monitoring requirements. Also, Gulf Power is a reuse customer for ECUA, using approximately 6 million gallons per day of reuse water in their air scrubber system, according to DEP. 
The Crist Mill had two quarters of noncompliance in the past three years, according to EPA data.
ECUA’s respective treatment plants are at Pensacola Beach and Bayou Marcus, Gulf Power’s Crist Plant, Ascend Performance Materials LLC and International Paper.
Russell Edgar, the now-retired assistant state attorney who led the grand jury investigation in 1999, said part of the problem with tracking the health issues caused by pollution is that they are hard to isolate from other causes.
“There have been multiple studies at (the University of West Florida) about this issue,”  Edgar said. “They were focused largely on health issues, which are very difficult to measure because of the way people move around and because of other factors such as personal habits, diets and so forth, it’s hard to tell just what connection there is between the pollution here and the health outcomes.”
After the grand jury report, UWF — with federal funding and the assistance of the Department of Health, Florida State University, the University of South Florida and the Georgia Institute of Technology — studied the local impacts of pollution.
The studies, which stretched from 2002 to 2009, included an analysis of whether proximity to discharge sites affected human health outcomes. A summary of the study noted, “this study did not find clear evidence for an influence of proximity to emission sites on ‘cumulative’ health at the zip code level.” 
Studies also looked at the pollution of soil in public places such as parks, playgrounds and sports fields at 126 locations in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. While they found elevated levels of toxins near some legacy pollution sites, they generally found the ground didn’t pose a health hazard.
Still, the report noted that ZIP codes with high incidences of specific outcomes like cardiac disease, lung cancer, asthma and pneumonia tended to have higher proximity to emission sources. The report recommended that the specific causes of these higher health risks — particularly in infants, the elderly, the black community and the poor — needed to be further investigated and addressed.
That follow-up work hasn’t occurred.
Additionally, the universities used hair samples to measure the mercury levels in women of child-bearing age. They found about 95 of the 602 women sampled (some 16%) had hair mercury levels exceeding the U.S. EPA’s advisory level. Of the 95, roughly 60% had eaten more than three seafood meals in the prior 30 days.
The Department of Health launched a campaign to raise awareness of fish consumption advisories that included billboards, news releases and wallet cards, but over the years, those efforts have tapered off to postings on the DOH website.
Currently, young children and women of child-bearing age are urged not to eat freshwater fish, with the exception of a handful of species, more than once a month to limit mercury exposure.
Edgar noted, “we still have problems with the water, and anybody who fishes or goes out on the water knows this.”
Stormwater runoff was also identified in the 1999 grand jury report, because unlike industrial waste, the trash and debris that rain washes off of our yards and streets receives no treatment.
In 2000, the city of Pensacola adopted a stormwater management program, and in 2001 adopted a stormwater utility to fund infrastructure improvements.
Over the past five years, the city has spent almost $8.7 million in budgeted capital improvements throughout the city. Additionally, the city has invested about $14 million in state and federal grant funds on projects such as Bill Gregory Stormwater Park and Corinne Jones Park. Another $10.4 million in grants have gone to emergency repair projects.
On Escambia County’s end of things, the Natural Resources Department has received an average of about $1 million a year in grant funding annually over the past decade.
The funding has allowed the department to do some innovative and experimental projects. The Central Office Complex at 3363 West Park Place is a point of pride for the staff, and features a green roof covered in plants, a pervious pavement parking lot designed to “drink” rainwater and a nationally certified in-house laboratory.
The grant funding is coupled with about $125.4 million in BP oil spill funding that’s already been earmarked for the county through RESTORE, Natural Resources Damage Assessment and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grants.
The county has spent about $179.8 million in Local Option Sales Taxes on drainage and dirt road projects, including a major initiative with the ECUA to install stormwater ponds, paved roads and other improvements in the Beach Haven community.  
So far, $82.9 million in Natural Resources Damage Assessment funds have been awarded to the county for 17 projects. Most of the projects are quality of life improvements such as $4.4 million for boat ramps at Mahogany Mill, Navy Point and Galvez Landing; $2.7 for artificial reef creation and restoration and $10.8 million for a 3.4-acre park at Innerarity Point. 
Brent Wipf, manager of the county’s Water Quality and Land Management Division, said that work done over the years to reduce and remove point sources of discharges cleared the way for a lot of the work.
The 1999 grand jury report noted that, “In southern Escambia County, ground water contamination is substantial and has resulted in a well construction moratorium, well closures and water filtration. More than one-half of the county’s public supply wells have been contaminated with dry cleaning solvents, pesticides or petroleum products.”
The Department of Health in Escambia County, the ECUA, the DEP and Escambia County have partnered on an array of programs to remediate the issues.
The Escambia County DOH administers the Petroleum Restoration Program for seven Northwest Florida counties. The program, funded by a percentage of Florida fuel sales, allows the DOH to remove and clean up abandoned fuel tanks left behind by shuttered gas stations.
“A lot are on old sites that have been contaminated since ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s,” said Gregory Berrian, environmental health director of the Escambia County DOH. “The state realized they didn’t know where all these storage tanks were, so they created a few programs that say pretty much, ‘If you tell us where the tank is and if you’ve had any sort of leak or spill, we’ll cover the cost of cleaning it up.”
Berrian said in the ’90s, there were about 1,400 eligible sites in Escambia County. Now that number is down to around 290. 
DOH has also been working with the county and ECUA to help homes on environmentally sensitive lands — shorelines, wetlands and the like — connect to sewer lines and safely abandon their septic tanks.
ECUA Executive Director Stephen Sorrell said, “we’ve been spending in the range of about $30 million a year for various capital improvement projects. About $8 million of that’s going toward the improvements of the sanitary sewer system in order to upgrade some of the older infrastructure.”
The capital improvement funds have gone toward large-scale conversion projects in Beach Haven, Navy Point and other areas.
ECUA Director of Communications and Government Affairs Timothy Haag said that roughly 60% to 70% of the utility’s customers are hooked up to sewer.
“We have prioritized areas that are close to surface waters and areas where the Health Department has indicated there is a health concern,” Sorrell said. “We prioritize those areas and try to address them first, and we’ve done a pretty good job of it. The areas where the septic tanks still remain are primarily where we don’t have a wastewater or sewage collection system.”
He noted that in those areas, ECUA had to lay pipe to connect to its wastewater treatment facilities. The cost can range from around $50 per foot to about $400 a foot in areas like Pensacola Beach.
“Millions of dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it doesn’t go very far at that rate,” Sorrell said. “Our issue is really pretty simple. We don’t have the ability to collect any tax money, and we get very little grant money or anything because we are a special district. About every bit of money we get has to come comes from our ratepayers, then we have to try to reapply these funds to make these improvements without overcharging ratepayers.”
Sorrell said in this issue and most others, “There’s more need than there are dollars to do them.” 
Jessica Baker balanced precariously on the lip of a small bridge, taking a moment to steady herself against the railing.
With nothing but a sheer two-story drop in front of her, she slowly lowered a flat, black and white disk into the stream beneath her until it disappeared. She called back what she observed to Barbara Albrecht, who jotted it down on her clipboard, then handed Baker the next testing implement.
It was a balmy Sunday in September, and the two women had volunteered their day to collect samples from urban watersheds throughout Escambia County.
Albrecht, a marine biologist, has been doing the work for decades as a member of the Florida Bream Fishermen’s Association. The citizens’ group has been sampling local waters for 50 years, and currently monitors at 48 stations throughout the county.
That Sunday, the group was doing its “urban run,” and Baker had volunteered to help.
Historically, our local water bodies such as Bayou Chico, Bayou Texar, Carpenter Creek and others have been polluted by contaminants from heavy industry. Today, stormwater is one of the biggest threats. When it washes off roads and yards, it often carries sediment, nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria, oil and grease, trash, pesticides and metals that get deposited directly into the water with no filtration.
“This system at one time supported all kinds of people, all kinds of communities,” Albrecht said. “People swam and fished, and you used to be able to take a boat all the way down. We’ve lost the beauty of nature. Nature’s hanging on, we just need to help her a little.”
A grand jury reviewed Escambia County’s environment in 1999, and issued 27 recommendations, many of them dealing with the overarching policies that guide how regulators monitor and regulate industry and the environment.
It identified stormwater as a major concern. It also recommended that the county step up its monitoring efforts. The report noted that after Champion International, the then-owners of the Cantonment paper mill, settled a pollution lawsuit with property owners, the state dialed back monitoring efforts in the area considerably. 
Afterward, “Northwest District of (DEP) then stopped almost all ambient water quality monitoring in the Perdido System, and elsewhere in the area, even though the mill was visibly and obviously polluting Eleven Mile Creek,” the grand jury report said. “Biologists were assigned to other duties, the Pensacola lab was dismantled, and the task of monitoring was given to the Northwest Florida Water Management District.”
Because the district was not provided funding to conduct monitoring, the work was left to “Champion, its paid consultants and to volunteers from the Bream Fishermen’s Association.”
Since then, local government has stepped in to fill the void, but there are still concerns about some of the local monitoring efforts, how much data is available to the public and local environmental policy.
Currently, there are 14 local waters on the DEP’s list of impaired waters, and most of our watershed has high levels of bacteria, nutrients and other problem contaminants.
Unless you’ve lived here long enough to know the area’s history, you likely would have no clue about the sorry state of our water.
The Department of Health in Escambia County issues water quality advisories on its website, but does not typically post signs or other information at problem sites. 
Dr. John Lanza, director of the local DOH, said the department only monitors for enterococci — a bacteria that typically isn’t dangerous, but that can indicate other harmful contaminants.
“Enterococci is going to change by the minute,” Lanza said. “Depending on which way the wind is blowing the tide, what you sampled a minute ago is going to be different from what you sampled a minute ago. It’s going to change again if it rains 10 minutes later. Unless you have continuous sampling, you really can’t know what’s happening at any particular moment, you just know what’s there in the history.” 
The DOH monitors 13 high-traffic shorelines through the state’s “Healthy Beaches” program established back in 2000. 
Escambia County conducts general water quality monitoring at 48 stations around the county, as well as conducting project-specific monitoring at 14 locations including the Pensacola Bay and Navy Point living shorelines, Bill Gregory Stormwater Park, the Jones Swamp Floodplain expansion and others.
Still, there’s no one handy place where the data is posted in a way for citizens to easily understand and make sound health decisions.
“There’s a lot of information,” said Gregory Berrian, DOH’s environmental health director. “It takes research. It takes someone to want to know about where they live and where they’re playing.”
A 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study noted there have been more than 450 studies of the Pensacola Bay system in recent history. Many of them exist in hard copy rather than online, making them difficult to compile. 
The study notes there has been “no long-term, multi-metric, and consistently-conducted monitoring effort to determine water quality trends in all but a few parameters.” It noted that surface water condition for the system had been ranked in the past as between “fair” and “good,” but “all chemical water quality judgments to date are based on an incomplete database and their conclusions are subject to wide interpretation.”
The report features a wealth of information on the local sediment, seagrass, sea life and other subjects, but concludes, bottom line, that “preventing further chemical and biological deterioration is an achievable goal but pragmatically any measurable improvement will occur incrementally over the long-term in the shadow of the increasing effects of climate change.”
Albrecht argues there is much that can be done to start making improvements in the here and now, but it’s not happening on the necessary scale.
For instance, in a recent newsletter, the Bream Fishermen’s Association said that the new $417 million bridge over Pensacola Bay will create about 30 acres of hardened surface on each of its two spans. The organization calculated a one-inch rain event will generate 814,500 gallons of stormwater per span that will spill directly into Pensacola Bay with no form of treatment. 
“These (water quality) problems are from 20, 30, 50 years ago, but we are still making the exact same mistakes, so they are going to be problems for your children and your grandchildren,” Albrecht said.
The 1999 grand jury report said that the area’s ozone levels “are among the highest in the state and have been for many years.”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement that in the last two decades since then, the air quality in Escambia County has improved significantly due to reductions in emissions of several key pollutants.
“In particular, sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions in Escambia County — the majority of which are from the Crist Electric Generating Plant — have dropped by 98 percent in the last two decades,” the statement said. “This drop in emissions is largely due to the installation of the wet scrubber at the Crist plant in late 2009 to help control SO2 emissions.”
The state operates two air quality monitors in Escambia County that currently measure ozone, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and SO2.
Escambia County operates 13 air quality monitoring locations, largely focused around landfills and concrete crushing plants.
The main impetus for the program were concerns of residents who were worried they were being poisoned by gasses and dust from the many waste and recycling facilities that surrounded their neighborhood.
“Historically, we never did air quality monitoring, but when it became a hot button issue three years ago with the Rolling Hills facility and the hydrogen sulfide, the concrete crushing and the potential for silica dust and fine particulates, the board asked us to start,” said the county’s top scientist, Chips Kirschenfeld, director of the Department of Natural Resources Management. “That was a whole new field for this department that rose out of the desire from County Commissioners, and we had the knowledge and the background to start.”
Kirschenfeld said he, Tim Day, environmental programs manager, and Brent Wipf, manager of the Water Quality and Land Management Division, were brought on staff in the wake of the grand jury report to help the county start addressing its environmental legacy.
He added that as recommended by the grand jury, the county had started acquiring sensitive lands for protections. Additionally, the state expanded the Environmental Resource Permitting program — which regulates almost all changes to the landscape that affect surface water flows — to Northwest Florida. 
“To me, one of the first things that came out of this (grand jury report) was the push for local ordinances and rules changes — from protecting wetlands and environmentally sensitive lands, to well head protections, to stormwater improvements, a lot of different regulations went into place,” Kirschenfeld said. “And along with that, the county made the decision that they needed professional environmental staff, which they didn’t have at the time.”
The Northwest District of the DEP declined to be interviewed by the News Journal, but answered general inquires in a written statement.
One of the key passages of the 1999 grand jury report was that, “We find that the Northwest District of the Department of Environmental Protection failed to properly implement and enforce the environmental laws, rules and regulations. The district office succumbed to political, economic, and other pressures, allowing regulated business, industries and individuals to pollute the area’s air and water. The district director, and others acting on his behalf, ignored and concealed environmental violations against the sound advice of staff employees.”
In a response, the DEP noted that “DEP leadership at both the district and agency levels have changed since 1999 … (but) the department’s mission to protect Florida natural resources is ongoing. The department continues to collect, study and analyze data about our changing environment in order to make informed, science-based decisions that ensure our natural resources will be protected for generations to come.”
Nonetheless, an array of local environmentalists have decried the current iteration of the DEP as a “permitting agency” that focuses far more on paperwork than field work.
Historically, dischargers have conducted their own monitoring and collected their own samples, which are sent to the DEP for approval.
“The polluter has always had to take samples on a regular basis,” said Linda Young, founder of the Florida Clean Water Network. “When their effluent is leaving the pipe, they sample it every so often and take measures of the various pollutants. They would do that themselves, but in the old days, DEP would show up unexpected and do samples and check receiving waters’ conditions to see what was happening there.”
She continued, “Over the years, it has got weaker and weaker and weaker. (Polluters) they go out and do their own thing, and DEP might spot check, they might not. It’s pretty much a self-regulating, fox-guarding-the-henhouse kind of a thing.”
When dischargers are found in non-compliance with regulations, one would assume DEP would have authority to crack the whip on violators, say “comply or else” and resolve noncompliance matters quickly.
In reality, it is more of a push and pull, where industries can apply for “site specific alternative criteria” that loosen regulations and make it easier for them to comply, negotiate over consent orders that dictate the standards they’ll be held to and embark on lengthy appeals processes to fight DEP rulings.
While local advocates recognize there needs to be due process, they point out that it’s everyday citizens and tax payers who suffer during these drawn out administrative battles.
“People think, ‘What are these stupid environmentalists screaming about?’ ” Young said. “It’s the water you are drinking. The water you are bathing in. It’s fundamental to all of us. It’s a huge deal, and it’s a travesty. You need to know this, and you have a right to know this, because it’s not going to get any better if no one is doing anything to make it better.” 
It was a “stick of dynamite,” the judge said.
In one clear, concise, comprehensive document, a grand jury had researched and cataloged Escambia County’s environmental sins and laid them bare for all to review.
It was a powerful, explosive read. Among other things, the 1999 grand jury report recommended the local head of the Department of Environmental Protection be terminated for ignoring and concealing violations, and proposed that dereliction of duty by a public officer be designated a criminal offense.
Still, the question to John Kuder, then the chief judge of Florida’s First Judicial Circuit,  was whether the report would blow open the current regime of inaction and enabling, or create a flash fire that quickly burned away into a puff of smoke.
Convening a grand jury to review the factors affecting Escambia County’s air and water quality — and regulators’ efficacy in protecting it — had been an easy sell when then State Attorney Curtis Golden approached Kuder with the proposal in 1998.
“I’ve lived here all of my adult life,” Kuder said from his downtown Pensacola office some 20 years later. “I can remember when there were plenty of fish to catch, plenty of scallops, all kinds of wildlife and fauna. So many species I used to enjoy are gone. … My own personal experience was exactly what I saw here (in the report).”
After Kuder agreed to impanel the grand jury, Assistant State Attorney Russell Edgar set about to gather information and testimony from scores of different biologists, chemists, engineers, businessmen, environmentalists, regulators and records.
“What I did was present this testimony to the grand jury and anyone else who wanted to hear it over a period of about a year,” Edgar said. “During that time, I went to the outfalls of the paper mill and all the plants and walked them. I got a boat and went up the rivers to see the discharges in the bays. I overflew the area in a helicopter and basically studied the maps and the charts and the figures of what had happened and historically reviewed how all this began.”
He continued, “It became evident that we had wonderful resources here, but the lack of any planning whatsoever caused the degradation of our natural resources, and this resulted in permanent damage and very costly consequences to the local people.”
The grand jury’s final report was damning, offering 27 recommendations for local and state regulators to start reversing the harm to our environment. A finding that particularly enraged the public was an assertion that the Northwest Florida District of the DEP had “succumbed to political, economic, and other pressures,” and then-district director, Bobby Cooley, had “ignored and concealed environmental violations against the sound advice of staff.” 
Some 20 years removed from the report’s release, Kuder said, “The response was immediately favorable. It was favorable because of its scope, its detail and the common sense of its findings and recommendations. It just seemed to make sense based on all of the findings.”
Still, local and state officials responded to the report with denial and denouncements. Elected officials scoffed at the suggestion they put corporations ahead of citizens, and environmental regulators were adamant they knew best how to safeguard our natural resources. 
A defiant DEP administration said it would take the grand jury’s recommendations under consideration, but ultimately refused to terminate Cooley and balked at implementing many of the sweeping changes recommended in the report.
“After the report was issued and presented publicly, there were a group of people, chamber of commerce people and others, who came to the aid of the local director who had served their interest and not the public’s,” Edgar said. “They criticized the report and took out ads in the paper against it, chastised me for it and so forth. I even had a County Commissioner who accused me of just doing it because I wanted to run for office, which was just laughable.”
The then-head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, David Struhs, told the News Journal at the time, “I would not say the grand jury’s work was an endorsement, but it was a vindication that the work done there is complex,” adding, “the people who work there work for me. They don’t work for a citizen’s panel impaneled by a state attorney.”
Within a few years, Struhs had left the DEP for a job in International Paper’s corporate administration.
In the months after the grand jury report, the News Journal noted that few of the initiatives gained much traction. In recent years, a lot of the progress that’s been made on environmental issues is thanks to a windfall of BP oil spill settlement funding.
Kuder, speaking of the time after the report, said, “When there were people and organizations that tried to do something … they could get information. They couldn’t get action. You can do all the studies in the world, but unless you can put that into the hands of people who can transform the community, the result is a book sitting on the shelf. That’s where it started to slowly disintegrate.”
Thus, it now falls to a few to try to fight for what’s right in the face of inaction and indifference.
“A lot of very good people in this community spend all of their spare time trying to get the right thing done and not being able to,” Kuder said.
Expressing what’s perhaps his biggest disappointment, the judge said he didn’t feel as if the voting public had followed the recommendation that they become more knowledgeable and involved about the environment concerning environmental issues and demand that their elected officials do the same.
“If you want things to happen the way you believe they should, exercise your right to vote, know who the candidate you support is working for, what source of revenue is funding that campaign,” Kuder said. “You can have someone who says I’m for the environment, and I’m committed to cleaning up air pollution, water pollution, ground water pollution. But you better know who that man or woman really is, and you certainly should know from whom their support is generated.”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top