WINTER HAVEN — Bioreactor.
The word brings to mind images of high-tech control rooms and beaker-shaped cooling towers of a nuclear power plant, not a place to store garbage.
Though a tour of Polk County's North Central landfill shows little difference from other facilities, a lot goes on that can't be seen.
"We're providing 5,000 homes with power," Solid Waste Division director Brooks Stayer said proudly as he pointed to a plant that takes the methane captured by the landfill and sells it to Tampa Electric Co.
Stayer also points to plaques the 33-year-old landfill has won and its large classroom that serves as a state training site. The bioreactor, one of three in the state, has been featured on the History Channel show Modern Marvels.
It's a design that executives at Angelo's Aggregate Materials wants to copy for the controversial household garbage landfill it wants to build southeast of Dade City. The company hired the same firm that designed Polk's bioreactor for the proposed 90-acre landfill, which could be expanded to 1,000 acres.
"We said 'Do what you did for Polk and make it even better and create more safeguards,' " said John Arnold, Angelo's engineer and project manager. He says the Dade City site is even better than Polk's because in addition to the liner, it includes "Mother Nature's barrier, 5 feet of clay."
"We're like a spaceship compared to an old dump," he said. "We want to make this a showcase facility."
The Polk bioreactor, which came online in 2000, took four years to get approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Before that, Polk County was paying an additional $1.5 million to $3 million every year to operate the landfill.
Here's how it works. The landfill cells are like big bathtubs that hold garbage. Rain that falls in is called leachate and is required to be treated as wastewater. It is drained and piped into storage tanks. It then is pumped back into the landfill to wet the garbage so microbes can feed on it, causing it to decompose faster and free up space to put in more garbage.
Pumps capture methane and send it to the nearby power plant.
Stayer speaks with pride of the cleanliness of the landfill, which can't be smelled even at the administrative offices at the main road nearby.
"Every Saturday, everything gets covered," he said, showing a green machine that sprays a green substance that resembles papier mache
"We've only had one odor complaint," he said. Inmates make sure the road is litter-free.
DEP files show Polk County received a warning letter in October in relation to three leachate spills into unlined storm water ditches. However, it was in compliance as of Jan. 14.
"They have been very cooperative and quick to take a course of action they needed to take," DEP spokeswoman Pamala Vazquez said.
A critic of the proposed Pasco landfill says Angelo's isn't required to install a bioreactor.
"There's no assurances they're going to do that, and the investment is not something we believe will ever take place," said Carl Roth, of the anti-landfill group Protectors of Florida's Legacy.
Roth said he believes the bioreactor promise is for "media consumption" and that Polk has more credibility because it is publicly operated and accountable to its County Commission. Angelo's is a private, for-profit company with no experience running a household garbage landfill.
"Polk County has been around the block and they know how to do things," he said.
Angelo's bills the project on its Web site as a compost landfill due to the bioreactor.
But Polk County's Stayer said comparing a bioreactor to a process that results in an organic substance such as potting soil would be "a stretch."
"It's less toxic," he said. "But the garbage isn't going to go away,"
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.