NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco commissioners on Tuesday voted to keep the operator of the county's trash-to-energy plant on the job at least until the end of 2024, effectively ending debate about whether to pursue a landfill in Dade City or elsewhere in the county.
Commissioners voted 5-0 to extend the contract with Covanta Pasco Inc. Its agreement to run the Shady Hills plant was set to expire in May 2016.
"This absolutely makes a commitment by the board to an alternative to the landfilling of waste," County Commissioner Ted Schrader said in an interview.
New Jersey-based Covanta has run the plant since it launched in 1991. But seven years ago, a debate erupted about whether to send trash to a landfill to save money and address potential capacity issues at Shady Hills when Angelo's Aggregate Materials proposed building a household garbage landfill near Dade City.
The plan sparked arguments from the start. Local residents worried the facility would lead to sinkholes and cause contaminants to seep into the aquifer.
State regulators weighed in several times about whether to grant environmental permits, noting the site's proximity to the Green Swamp.
In late June, an administrative law judge ruled against an environmental permit sought by Angelo's because the company could not assure that the facility would not pollute the environment. In September, the state's Department of Environmental Protection affirmed the judge's decision and denied the permit application.
The commission's action on Tuesday further closed debate about landfills — at least the notion of the county sending trash there.
Pasco's solid waste director, John Power, said a landfill isn't necessary because of upgrades at the Shady Hills energy plant that addressed capacity issues.
"We haven't used a landfill in four years," he said, adding that one won't be necessary in the future. "We have enough capacity."
The new agreement with Covanta also will enable the company to make upgrades to address future air quality standards.
Utilities Director Bruce Kennedy said the company is planning about $13 million in improvements to improve the quality of emissions from the plant's incinerator. Specifically, the changes will result in lower nitrogen oxide levels.
"That equipment is getting kind of old," he said.
To pay for the upgrades, the county has agreed to adjust its revenue-sharing agreement with Covanta, which will handle the work.
The company currently receives 10 percent of the revenue generated from the sale of electricity generated by the plant. The county will increase that share to 14 percent.
The basic rate charged to Pasco residents for trash disposal will stay the same — $62 per year.
"This contract will allow for an operations upgrade … that will result in the facility being more environmentally friendly," Kennedy said.