As Pasco officials scrambled last week to lobby against a politically unpopular landfill, state regulators signaled that a decision on the proposal might not come so quickly after all.
The Department of Environmental Protection is considering an environmental permit for a private landfill south of Dade City by Angelo's Aggregate Materials. The department rejected the request in 2009, but is reviewing a scaled-down proposal from June that cuts the initial size of the dump from 90 acres to 30.
"The rumor was getting out there that a decision was potentially going to be made pretty quickly," said House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
But Weatherford said he spoke last week with the department's chief of staff, who said a decision is not imminent and that the department would reach out to local officials.
"My personal feelings are I have concerns," he said. "For (the DEP) to go back and change their position, they would have to make a pretty strong case to the Legislature about why they did so."
He added that "you have to balance out people's land rights" with potential harmful effects on water quality.
The news of DEP's deliberations also caused two other prominent Pasco lawmakers, Sen. Mike Fasano and Rep. John Legg, to draft a letter to DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard underscoring the Pasco delegation's opposition to the landfill. The lawmakers said the smaller proposal would only be the "camel's nose under the tent" that would allow for an expanded landfill in the future.
"No matter its size, there will be an impact in the surrounding communities on the ground water recharge," the letter says, citing the landfill's proximity to the Green Swamp. "It seems at the least ill advised to permit a landfill in such a place."
The DEP on Monday asked for a 30-day extension in an administrative law hearing relating to the case. Angelo's had appealed the department's 2009 decision, and the agency faced a deadline to report on the status of the proposal. Officials cited a complex review process in asking for the extra time.
The hubbub began last Tuesday when County Commissioner Ted Schrader said he'd heard the department might approve the project within a week. He was concerned that Angelo's hired experienced Tallahassee lawyer Jake Varn and that the department had new leadership after Gov. Rick Scott was elected. The official charged with reviewing landfills has been on the job for less than two months.
Schrader, who opposes the landfill, spoke with Vinyard on Friday. Vinyard assured him the landfill would get a fair review, though he cautioned the department can't consider transportation issues, land-use matters or "local political pressure."
Schrader said he relayed his concerns that the site is too close to Dade City and that Pasco doesn't need another landfill to handle its garbage. He also reminded Vinyard that Pasco is in the "epicenter of sinkholes" and that if a sinkhole opened under the landfill, it could send waste into drinking water aquifers.
But the commissioner said he is worried the department is even reviewing the plan. Schrader said DEP should wait for Angelo's appeal of the 2009 decision to play out.
"Why are they even reviewing it at this particular juncture?" he asked. "Why wouldn't they let the process follow its course?"
In its revised proposal sent to DEP in June, Angelo's said the risk to the environment is low.
"The proposed landfill is located … in a geologic setting much less prone to sinkholes than the rest of Pasco County," the company said. "All of the sinkhole data support the low to very low probability of a sinkhole occurrence at the proposed landfill site."
Even if Angelo's secures the environmental permit, it would still face a long battle to build its landfill. It would need to persuade the County Commission to change the property's zoning classification from agricultural/residential to public or semi public. A 2009 change to the county comprehensive plan underscored that landfills can only be built on those types of property.
The company appealed that decision, but an administrative judge ruled in favor of the county in December.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.