BROOKSVILLE — The cost to dump into the county's two wastewater receiving stations is dropping, and local septic companies won't be the only ones to benefit.
The Hernando County Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved a staff recommendation to lower the dumping price from 58 cents to 39 cents per 1,000 gallons at its wastewater stations on Hexam Road and at the Hernando County Airport. The county set the previous price in 2006, based on projected costs of building and running the treatment stations. The county can provide the service for the new price, county staffers told the board.
But officials also used the lower price as leverage in a deal to convince a local septic company owner to stop spreading treated waste on property on Sweet Gum Road, off Sunshine Grove Road.
Anthony Crescenzo, owner of Johns by John Inc., agreed to stop spreading septage on 6 acres of the 12-acre tract. Neighbors have been complaining for six months about the odor that wafts to their homes after Crescenzo's trucks rumble down their road.
The agreement also applies to chicken manure, which Crescenzo had applied on the site to neighbors' dismay.
Officials insisted the county was not lowering the pumping prices solely to quell the controversy on Sweet Gum. All companies that use the stations, they note, will benefit.
"Those conversations (about lowering rates) were already going on. It just happened that the complaints and problems from Sweet Gum probably brought it forward a little sooner," Commissioner John Druzbick, who helped broker the deal with Crescenzo, told the Times last week.
"I think this agreement's a good thing all the way around," Commissioner Dave Russell said before Tuesday's vote.
Russell emphasized that the action does not require other septic companies to stop land spreading.
Relieved residents, who said they endured Crescenzo's trucks even on Mother's Day and Easter Sunday, thanked commissioners.
"We're all looking forward to reclaiming the quality of life we moved here to Brooksville to get," Leesa Guimond said.
Guimond and other residents criticized the Hernando County Health Department, whose job it is to make sure land application is being done according to law.
"They're dropping the ball," said resident Cassie Stump.
She and other neighbors claimed Crescenzo was dumping waste at all hours and too close to the property line.
Al Gray, the Health Department's environmental health manager, has said his site visits turned up no conclusive evidence that Crescenzo was breaking any rules.
Standing at the lectern before the vote Tuesday, Crescenzo expressed regret and denied neighbors' claims that he broke rules.
"I apologize to all who have been affected," he said. "This was never my intention. I didn't approve the site. I'm not a bad guy, just a guy in a bad situation."
Crescenzo said afterward that he invested more than $100,000 in a lime treatment facility in Pasco County. The waste was being treated with the lime to kill bacteria, then trucked to the Sweet Gum site.
He hopes to sell the land and said he doesn't have any immediate plans to find another site for application and expects to lose money on the lime treatment facility if he decides to sell it.
For smaller companies like Alternative Septic, the lower pumping prices will be a boon, manager Robert Seltzer told the Times last week.
Alternative only uses the county stations and does not apply waste on any land, Seltzer said. The company's trucks dump roughly 13,000 to 18,000 gallons during busy weeks, and the lower expense will increase profit margins as the economy struggles to rebound, Seltzer said.
"It would be a great benefit to me," he said.
Even with the price decrease, larger companies that have their own treatment facilities and land spreading sites have little to no incentive to use the county stations, said Jay Sartor, own of Cliff's Septic.
Sartor has made substantial investments in a treatment plant next to the company's headquarters off Cobb Road. He also owns a 60-acre parcel on Sam C Road, west of Brooksville, where he applies waste.
At the county's new pumping price, a 2,500-gallon truck would cost nearly $100 to empty.
"It's certainly a better number, but it still doesn't cost me a hundred dollars in time and fuel to come back to my facility," he said.
Sartor questioned the wisdom of lowering rates in a county struggling with revenue and budget issues.
The two treatment stations currently process about 4 million gallons of septage per year and has the capacity to accept an additional 1.5 million gallons annually, environmental services director Susan Goebel-Canning has told the board.
Roughly 2.7 million gallons of treated septage is applied to Hernando County land each year. If all the companies decided to stop applying waste to land and brought their septage to county facilities, the county would need to invest some $4.5 million in infrastructure, including a new plant in Ridge Manor, Goebel-Canning said.
That's just for septage, though, she noted in an interview Tuesday. Additional modifications would have to be made to accept restaurant grease and so-called biosolids — the material left after the wastewater treatment process. Both of those are also applied to Hernando County land, both by local providers and some in Pasco County, which has an ordinance banning land application.
Commissioners on Tuesday said they wanted staffers to look at the county's land use ordinances to prevent a Sweet Gum situation from happening again. But the days of spreading treated waste on farmland are numbered anyway.
Two years ago, the Florida Legislature voted to ban land application starting in 2016 and ordered state health officials to look for alternatives. State officials estimate that 40 million gallons of septic waste is treated with lime each year, then sprayed on farmers' fields as fertilizer.
Environmentalists support the ban because they say land application is a source of water pollution and toxic algae blooms. But opponents are lobbying for repeal, contending the law will drive up the cost of disposal.
The investment required by the county to handle the additional volume will almost certainly affect rates in the future, Goebel-Canning said. The hope is to minimize rate increases by tackling multiple projects at the same time.
"If you can tie them together," she said, "you save lots of money."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]