SHADY HILLS — Household trash and other debris piling up at remote, illegal dump sites is a major reason for the declining water quality at the area's freshwater springs. But the Southwest Florida Water Management District has just finished a three-year project to clean up the mess.
The agency has removed more than 90 tons of rubbish from spots around Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties where sinkholes have allowed contaminants to quickly flow into the groundwater.
The vast majority of the junk — 83 tons, mostly rubber tires — was collected from Crews Lake in Shady Hills. While there were numerous sinkholes in the area, there was so much trash packed into one of the holes that it evened out the surface of the site.
Swiftmud also found gas tanks from cars and propane tanks, items that pose much more dangerous risks of contamination to the water supply.
The haul turned up some fairly interesting stuff, according to project manager Chris Zajac.
"That first year we were all excited about what we were going to find. But we didn't find Jimmy Hoffa,'' he said, referring to the former Teamsters leader who vanished.
Things got more interesting in the second year.
At a sinkhole in northwest Hernando County they found an old vehicle, which turned out to belong to a person who had died. The Hernando County Sheriff's Office then went searching for the owner's next of kin to see if anyone wanted what remained of the vehicle.
In other places, the cleaners found shopping carts, newspaper boxes, a gun safe and a bowling ball. A handgun also turned up.
Small appliances were found in some of the dump sites, including televisions and a computer. Electronics pose an acute environmental threat, but Zajac noted that almost anything left to break down over time causes problems. What they didn't find were any truly hazardous materials. "There were no 55-gallon drums with a skull and crossbones on them,'' he said.
That was an especially good thing because Swiftmud was approaching the project not as a regulator going after someone for dumping but as a service to clean up potential threats to the water supply.
The cleanup project was budgeted to cost $200,000, but the work was wrapped up for just $90,000. Part of that savings came from the team examining the sites using an $800 camera they bought to lower into sinkholes, so they could save thousands of dollars in consultant's fees, Zajac said.
The project was part of the district's Springs Clean Up Initiative. There are more than 100 springs in the district, with the majority clustered around the five first-magnitude springs systems at Weeki Wachee, Homosassa, Chassahowitzka, Kings Bay and the Rainbow River.
As part of the project, Zajac said, he worked with private land owners to help them understand the importance of securing their property to avoid future illegal dumping there.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.