Colleen Castille is a good listener, an ability that served her well in Tallahassee where lobbyists and special interests have the run of the place. There, she rose gracefully and swiftly from Cabinet aide to Gov. Jeb Bush’s nominee for chief of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
As she considers how to help Floridians, Castille would do well to know some people who tried to make government work, but didn’t have the access, power or money—people like Wanda and Eric Teat.
All the Teats wanted was to raise their family in the tranquillity of Huckleberry Creek, a pristine waterway meandering toward Apalachicola Bay.
Nearly 20 years ago, Apalachicola built a sewage plant four miles from the Teat homestead. Wanda Teat, a schoolteacher, met with city officials to express her concern.
City commissioners believed the wetlands would soak up the pollution. That was what the engineers said. Wanda Teat was sent home with the assurance that the only change she would notice was that “the trees would grow better.”
About seven years after the sewage plant opened, the Teats began to notice big changes in their backyard creek. That’s the way it is with the environment; changes happen slowly. Then, all of a sudden what you treasure is gone.
Water hyacinth was planted upstream to “cleanse” the creek. Water hyacinth is to native plants what Wal-Mart is to small business—a category killer. Soon, the Teats’ dog could run straight across what used to be creek without wetting a paw.
Wanda Teat met with the city commission. Repeatedly, she called FDEP and EPA. She says, “I was shocked that both FDEP and EPA knew what was going on at Huckleberry Creek and they did nothing. I thought that’s what environmental agencies were for.”
A lot can happen in 11 years. In 11 years, Castille rose from Cabinet staff to the governor’s trusted aide. After 11 years of trying to get officials to make things right on Huckleberry Creek, the Teats reached into their small savings and, as a last resort, sued the city of Apalachicola.
In less than four years, Castille rose from Gov. Bush’s trusted aide to his nominee to run Florida’s environmental agency. In less than four years, the Teats’ bank account was depleted. Sick and exhausted, they tried a last time to get FDEP involved.
In October 2000, the Teats drove two and a half hours to Tallahassee. In a FDEP conference room, a senior official, Kirby Green—aide to the FDEP chief—met them with hostility, according to the Teats. He banished their attorney from the meeting and proceeded for an hour and a half to make a mother and a father who raised three children on Huckleberry Creek feel that they were the problem, not the city of Apalachicola and not the sewage plant that FDEP had failed to regulate.
Today, Wanda Teat has grown a little older and a lot wiser. They hoped FDEP, with all its power and resources, would make the city clean up its mess. It didn’t.
The point of this story should not be lost on an optimistic, capable new environmental chief for Florida: FDEP never enforced any action against Apalachicola for its violations, even when—for an entire year—the sewage plant operated without a permit. Even when, in the 1990s, FDEP mandated a sewer moratorium hookup in Apalachicola and imposed fines, the agency followed through on neither.
Eventually, the Teats won a favorable judgment from a Florida court against Apalachicola. The State of Florida granted Apalachicola upward of $8 million for land acquisition and sewage upgrades. But despite a consent order with FDEP, Huckleberry Creek is still a sewage outfall.
Bush takes as an article of faith that it is a good thing when state authority is diminished in favor of local decision-making. But tell that to the Teats, who endured decades of taunts in a small Florida town, the kind of place the governor believes can better serve people than state government.
While Castille enjoys the accolades, she should keep in mind that all the Teats wanted was accountability. What they got was a lesson that, in Florida, accountability is like the weather. Wait a while, and it will change.