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Foes question DEP's role in proposed east Pasco landfill decision

The landfill was billed as safe, economical and an environmental service to the region.

It also would be within a mile of 74,000 acres of prime preservation land and a potential source of drinking water. And that struck some people at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as wrong.

So agency officials wrote a letter warning that the landfill would turn more wildlife into roadkill. People using the preserve for recreational activities would smell the garbage. Predators and scavengers would come prowling. And if the landfill design failed, there were "additional risks of contamination" to future water sources.

That was the story in Charlotte County in 2007, according to a DEP letter obtained by the Times.

The same agency is slated to decide this month whether to allow a private landfill in east Pasco within a mile of the Green Swamp — another state preserve that helps provide drinking water.

In this case, however, the permits are already drafted for Angelo's Aggregate Materials to build and run the landfill. Opponents expect them to be approved.

"How can they … oppose issuing a permit in Charlotte County, but they want to approve a similar project in Pasco County?" asked Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader, an opponent of the landfill southeast of Dade City.

"These are some of the exact same issues that Pasco County raised. Certainly the same issue the citizens group has raised. Yet we haven't been able to get answers from DEP to those specific questions."

Agency officials say they can explain.

In Charlotte County, the DEP says, its state lands officials were merely giving advice on the proposed Omni Waste landfill near the Babcock Ranch, a preserve that cost the state $350 million. The Charlotte County Commission rejected the proposed landfill in May 2007, before Omni Waste even applied for the necessary DEP permits.

In Pasco County, however, Angelo's has applied for the DEP permits, and the agency's regulatory arm has been reviewing that proposal for more than two years.

Moreover, DEP maintained, no two projects are alike.

Angelo's project manager John Arnold said its project won't hurt the Green Swamp. Water, he said, flows west from the proposed landfill. The Green Swamp is due east.

"We physically cannot affect the Green Swamp," Arnold said, adding "it would defy gravity."

No state land?

Schrader and other opponents doubt that, and they aren't ready to buy DEP's explanation of how the agency came out — in writing — against the Charlotte County project.

DEP officials said the state lands division has not produced any documents about its opinion of Angelo's proposal in Pasco.

But it raised its objections in Charlotte County at a crucial time.

The Charlotte landfill was supposed to take up about roughly a quarter of nearly 1,300 acres, about 4,500 feet north of Babcock Ranch.

"The Department of Environmental Protection concurs with Charlotte County staff's recommendation that the committee deny the application ... to locate a landfill adjacent to the state's recently acquired Babcock Ranch," the agency's Division of State Lands told Charlotte officials in a letter dated April 5, 2007. The Charlotte County Commission killed the project a month later.

But last week, DEP press secretary Doug Tobin drew a distinction between the agency's opinion of the Charlotte project and the proposal in Pasco. Angelo's asked for DEP permits in October 2006. Omni Waste hadn't applied yet.

Tobin also initially said there are no state lands near the Angelo's site, and the state lands division didn't have a role in the permitting decision.

Then he acknowledged there is state land nearby — the Green Swamp — but said state officials found no problems and the state lands division had "not been involved any further in Angelo's."

Then he said there has been an ongoing review, which he declined to describe.

Tobin said Bob Ballard, the DEP deputy director for lands and recreation, attended a Nov. 20 meeting on the Pasco project. Tobin said Ballard was asked about the proximity to state parks (there was only a local one) and then the Green Swamp.

"He did look at the map, and he did bring up the Green Swamp, but as far as scientific reasons to move forward with any scientific reason to object, there weren't any," Tobin said.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District owns 109,000 acres in the Green Swamp, and protected another 27,000 acres from development through conservation agreements with landowners. The Green Swamp has been part of the state's preservation program, Florida Forever.

In December, county records show, DEP sent letters to people who have questions about the proposed landfill, acknowledging their "concerns regarding the proposed facility's proximity to the Green Swamp." Angelo's initial 90-acre phase is about 4,000 feet from conservation land.

The agency promised it has worked with its state lands division and "our commitment to protecting the Green Swamp is unwavering."

The environmentally sensitive nature of the Green Swamp has earned it certain protections.

The Green Swamp has scored high on the state's aquifer vulnerability survey, a sophisticated computer model that predicts which areas of the water table are most susceptible to contamination from the surface.

And top Florida officials designated part of the swamp as an area of critical state concern, said Gary Knight, director of the Florida Natural Areas Inventory, a clearinghouse with Florida State University that tracks important environmental lands. Projects within such an area trigger an extra layer of state review.

Locating a landfill near such a location would be a "challenge," Knight said.

"It's not suggesting that the whole area be protected in a preserve. There's going to be lots of uses," Knight said. But the high aquifer vulnerability score "should just inform people about the decisions."

Tobin refused to discuss any conclusions the division reached after its Nov. 20 meeting on Angelo's. A request to speak with Ballard, the DEP lands manager, also was denied. Ballard's brother, Brian, is a lobbyist for Angelo's, but the agency and Brian Ballard have both said they have had no interaction over the project.

Landfill opponent Carl Roth questioned the state agency's actions.

"The inconsistency of the application of the rules … is one of the reasons we're concerned that DEP is not capable of making a decision using the rules," said Roth, a leader in Protectors of Florida's Legacy, the primary opposition group.

"The other thing you've got here is you know who the players are. That speaks volumes why they're not denying it."

Angelo's: No worries

Arnold said he has no fears over the letter to Charlotte County. He said the design of the Pasco landfill tops state requirements. There will be a double liner, then a 5-foot clay layer. The landfill is at least 200 feet from its property boundary, beyond the 100-foot requirement by the state, Angelo's officials said.

"It doesn't make us nervous," said Arnold, Angelo's project manager. "The project has to be approved based on the technical merits. And it has to protect the environment and the groundwater. ... We far exceed that. We're proud of that."

Tampa Bay Water, the region's drinking water authority, also has found no reason to fear contamination from the landfill, although opponents are challenging that assessment.

The landfill will be designed to protect against the moderate risk of sinkholes that state geologists identified in the area, Arnold said.

In fact, one of the neighbors already has a landfill close to Green Swamp: Pasco County government.

The 120-acre east Pasco landfill includes an unlined, 40-acre section that's more than three decades old. Tests in five monitoring wells in 2007 showed contaminants such as arsenic and benzene were higher than allowed in water.

While the county no longer accepts waste there, the landfill is under state review to renew its 2002 permit.

Opponents like Schrader and Roth haven't crowed about that landfill.

"Hopefully as human beings, we learn over time that's not good idea," Roth said. "So let's not do it again."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.

Landfill vs. landfill

Some of DEP's concerns in 2007 about a proposed landfill in Charlotte County seem similar to opponents' qualms against a proposal this year in east Pasco County — but not always. "I don't know if you can make any comparison to any two sites," said Doug Tobin, agency press secretary.

Issue Pasco landfill Charlotte landfill
Safe drinking water Angelo's landfill is within a mile of the Green Swamp, which the Southwest Florida Water Management District calls the "beat of central Florida's hydrologic heart" and a "precious oasis." Omni Waste landfill would have been within a mile of Babcock Ranch, a potential future source to draw drinking water. "Therefore," DEP wrote in 2007, "the county may not wish to subject it to additional risk of contamination from potential engineering systems failure or unanticipated and significant tropical weather events."
Preservation lands Landfill site is not within areas targeted for purchase as conservation areas, environmental experts said. DEP said it feared that building a landfill next to land targeted for preservation could hurt the state's ability to buy and preserve other properties in the future.
Wildlife Pasco landfill is not in any designated wildlife corridors. Sandhill cranes have been detected, according to the Florida Natural Areas Inventory. Ecologists have found endangered Florida panthers in the area, which is part of a potential habitat for them. The nearby Babcock Ranch was purchased to connect a broad wildlife corridor.
Proximity Angelo's landfill would be 4,000 to 4,100 feet from Green Swamp conservation lands, according to developer, opponents and Arnold, and maps using DEP data. DEP says state-owned lands are 1.3 miles away, though. Landfill would have been 4,500 feet from preservation land at Babcock Ranch, Charlotte County documents say.

Sources: Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Charlotte County, Angelo's Aggregate Materials, Florida Wildlife Federation.

Foes question DEP's role in proposed east Pasco landfill decision 01/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 3:18pm]

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