In the ongoing battle over a company's quest to build a landfill near Dade City, this was the "no" that started it all. And now it's a judge's turn to decide whether that "no" should have been a "yes."
Lots of eyes will be on administrative law Judge Bram D. Canter on Monday when he begins hearing the appeal filed by Angelo's Aggregate Materials against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which in 2009 denied the company's request for a permit to build a 90-acre household garbage dump near a construction and debris landfill it already owns.
"It'll be a circus, I'm sure," said Jake Varn, the Tallahassee land use attorney representing Angelo's, a Largo firm owned by the Iafrate family. The controversial project, first proposed in 2006, was touted as a solution to Pasco County's need for more waste disposal options in addition to an incinerator in Shady Hills.
But opponents, ranging from a grassroots environmental group to local governments to powerful ranchers to the Nestle Waters North America company, which bottles water from nearby Crystal Springs, came out in force against it. Critics could be easily spotted at meetings in their signature red shirts and stop signs.
"We continue to believe that allowing a (household garbage) landfill at this proposed location creates a short and long term risk to the Tampa Bay region's drinking water supplies as well as other negative environmental and economic impacts," said Carl Roth, spokesman for the anti-landfill group Protectors of Florida's Legacy, which signed on as parties in the case.
Angelo's attorneys say the company has met — and in some cases exceeded — the state's requirements for such a landfill. They say opponents are criticizing design measures that go "above and beyond" what's required to provide "reasonable assurances" of the project's safety.
Opponents raised a host of concerns, from the possibility of sinkholes to potential contamination of the nearby Green Swamp and Hillsborough River, which supplies Tampa's drinking water. Rancher Robert Thomas, whose Crystal Spring supplies bottled water for Nestle, once likened it to a horror movie villain who despite being killed repeatedly "just keeps getting back up."
"The Iafrate family's dream is to make rural East Pasco the garbage capital of the Eastern seaboard of the United States," said Thomas, who noted the landfill proposal called for eventual expansion to 1,000 acres. He and other opponents have suggested the company might use the nearby railroad to import out-of-state waste, a claim Angelo's has said is not true.
Though it has not taken an official position, the county approved new rules that made it tougher for landfills to operate on property not already designated for public or semi-public use. It also struck a deal with Osceola County to accept some of its waste and said Angelo's landfill wasn't needed.
In the end, the DEP based its rejection of the permit on sinkhole concerns, saying the risk was just too great. The agency also said the company failed to show with "reasonable assurance" that the landfill could be built without a risk to the environment. The company appealed.
Meanwhile, Angelo's has also waged its fight on some other fronts. It appealed the county's rule changes, which were approved by the state, but lost when a judge sided with the county. Company officials also sued the county, saying it was illegally trying to stop the project. A circuit judge tossed out the lawsuit, saying it was premature because the company hadn't yet been denied land-use changes.
Angelo's still maintains that the original landfill meets permit standards, but has since scaled back the project to 30 acres. It also performed additional tests and added a reinforcement layer to the liner to act as a "safety net." The layer was made using calculations suggested by DEP and used in a Hernando landfill proposal that ultimately won approval.
In June, however, DEP officials reaffirmed the agency's initial decision to deny Angelo's permit, even though the project's footprint was smaller.
"At this time, Angelo's has conducted more geotechnical testing than any other Florida landfill applicant has done and has far exceeded its 'reasonable assurances' burden," the company wrote in a summary of its appeal arguments.
Opponents, who signed on as parties in the appeal, disagree.
WRB Enterprises, owned by rancher Bill Blanchard, said it will show that the proposed liner system was not designed to protect against the size of a sinkhole that can "reasonably be expected to occur with some measure of confidence" at the site. The company also says it will present evidence that the landfill would create "obnoxious" odors, landfill gas accumulation, attract nuisance birds and rodents that harm wildlife, spread diseases to people and livestock, cause machinery noise and litter the area with debris falling from waste-hauling trucks.
Attorneys for Crystal Springs Preserve say the Angelo's proposal is "particularly threatening" because of the site's geology and closeness to the nature preserve and spring, where Nestle is allowed to pump up to 756,893 gallons a day for its bottled water business. And if the landfill's failure sent chemicals into the water supply, even below federally allowed levels, Nestle said it is not allowed to treat the contamination and still market its product as spring water.
The company said that could result in a "devastating loss" to its business.
Roth said Angelo's has made a significant changes to the project to protect its investment. But nothing can protect the area if a breach were to occur and send poisonous waste into the aquifer.
"We have seen what has happened with the Southeast Hillsborough landfill when a sinkhole opened beneath it and it was in an area with purportedly low risk for sinkholes," he said, referring to a 2010 incident.
Judge Canter will hear testimony from both sides for up to four weeks and is not expected to make a decision from the bench. He will make a recommendation to the DEP, which the agency typically follows. The agency's decision then can be appealed to a state court of appeal and ultimately to the Florida Supreme Court.
The hearing involves more than 300 pieces of evidence and more than 25 witnesses, including engineers and geologists.
"We're anxious to see what they determine, and I guess we'll have to deal with whatever the determination is," said County Commissioner Ted Schrader. He acknowledged the company's extra precautions but said they weren't worth it given the location.
"Sometimes mistakes and accidents happen, and we just can't take that risk," he said.