The Phoenix Flyer

New environmental secretary appointed as Florida ecosystems deteriorate

By: - August 31, 2021 5:51 pm

Dead fish killed by red tide float in Boca Ciega Bay near Madeira Beach near St. Petersburg on July 21. Credit: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Shawn Hamilton, newly named secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, has a daunting task ahead of him, say environmental experts who have been calling for dramatic changes in policy since Gov. Ron DeSantis was elected.

Hamilton has been interim secretary since June 4, when Noah Valenstein departed. He has been at DEP for 13 years, most recently as deputy secretary of Lands and Recreation. His bio indicates his expertise is in administration, permitting, compliance and enforcement.

Shawn Hamilton. Credit: Florida DEP

While the governor’s press release about Hamilton included a litany of compliments from environmental groups such as Audubon Florida and the Everglades Foundation, several others were conspicuously not represented, including Sierra Club of Florida, the Florida Springs Council, and Waterkeepers Florida.

Those groups have been fighting the DeSantis administration over water quality since he promised to reduce blue-green algae blooms, red tide, and water pollution. This summer, communities around the state continued to be plagued by algae, red tide, fish kills and the disastrous collapse of a toxic retention pond at Piney Point near Tampa Bay.

Sierra, the Springs Council and Waterkeepers condemned DeSantis and Republican legislators who backed the so-called “Clean Waterways Act” that they insist largely ignores the findings of the scientist-packed Blue-Green Algae Task Force DeSantis commissioned ostensibly to make waterways cleaner.

Florida state government also has taken not a single step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change that fuels excessive heat, stronger and more frequent hurricanes, and unprecedented flooding.

Deborah Foote, deputy director of the Florida chapter of Sierra Club, said she has met with Hamilton and urged him to be ambitious and transparent because Florida’s environment “needs all hands on deck” and is not getting the help it requires.

“He should start with fully implementing the recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force,” Foote told the Phoenix.

“I’m hopeful that under his leadership, the department may become much more of a partner with stakeholders and the public as we work to improve Florida’s environment,” Foote continued. “We are looking forward to working with him in a transparent and engaged manner.”

Audubon Florida was among the organizations that provided complimentary statements cited in the governor’s press release.

“Audubon has been pleased with Secretary Hamilton’s interim leadership and we are glad to see his role made permanent,” said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida. “Not only does he bring long experience at regional and state levels of DEP, but his background spans DEP priorities from regulatory oversight to state land management. DEP is a big agency with big responsibilities and we’re glad to see someone with Shawn’s talents and experience chosen for the role.”

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]