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Sewage standoff pits Pinellas County, neighbors, against waste business

PINELLAS PARK — "I'm sorry I stink," said Michael Albert, looking sheepish.

Early on Wednesday, he'd been emptying a restaurant's grease trap into one of his trucks when a hose loosened, spraying decomposing food, oil and fat down the front of his green polo shirt. Half an inch of dark muck clung to his white tennis shoes. But if there was an Albert-specific smell, it was impossible to isolate hours later as he sat in his office, where Pine-Sol-flavored air battled the stench of raw sewage.

Albert, 43, owns Reliable Septic & Sewer Inc., a waste-processing company that is locked in a bitter fight with Pinellas County over its odor. After two years and more than 100 complaints from neighbors and local business owners, the county has given Albert an ultimatum. He has until Monday to pay $3,000 in odor-violation fines and agree to make changes to lessen the smell. If not — and Albert says he will not consent to that — the battle is likely headed to court. If the county wins, his could be the first Pinellas business shut down for creating a nuisance by smelling foul.

How a company that's been pumping and hauling grease and sewage for more than 30 years wound up in this situation is a story of Pinellas' sudden population explosion. In the early 1980s, when Albert's father started the business, hardly anyone lived or worked nearby, other than his own family. A 9,000-gallon storage tank sat in the back yard, stinking so badly that Michael Albert's wife, Danielle, who lived with him in a house on the lot, would wait for the fumes to dissipate before cooking dinner. Lunch was out of the question. But no one called to complain.

By 2010, when Albert bought the business, dozens of single-family homes had sprouted to the west of him. His company, which sits on less than half an acre of land, is now surrounded on all sides by people who are demanding that he leave. He knows his business is smelly, but he's not sure what people were expecting.

"A lot of people just want him out of here," said Michael Dearing, the owner of a metal-coating business south of Reliable. As a small business owner, he considers himself somewhat sympathetic to Albert's situation, but the noxious odors have led him to make over a dozen calls to the county. "He can't do this to the detriment of everyone here," Dearing said.

The first odor complaint came in 2011, a year after Albert bought Reliable and altered the business model. Instead of trucking waste from restaurants to the county's facilities, where he had to pay fees, he devised a plan to save money. He would open his own FOG — fat, oil and grease — processing plant and discharge wastewater directly into the county's sewer system. County officials gave him a permit to do this, and he got to work.

Within a year, complaints began to pour in. Albert was processing sewage outside, in open air, and there were reports of people vomiting from the stench. County officials had never checked to see if Reliable had the correct zoning, but they did now, and he didn't. The county sent him a cease-and-desist order and he hired a lawyer.

Since then, the Alberts say they have spent more than $400,000 to move their processing equipment indoors, all in hopes of getting the zoning change approved. A nearby landowner, Ted Legakis, gathered 146 signed petitions asking the County Commission to vote down the change. The local planning authority recommended against it.

But in January, the commission voted 4-3 to change Reliable's zoning, allowing it to continue to operate. Michael Albert promised to fix the odor problem.

The couple has begun spraying fragrances into the air to cover the sewage odors, and during a visit to the Alberts' property last week, the air smelled faintly of chlorine. There was a mild undercurrent of bubble gum.

"We like bubble gum a lot," Michael Albert said. Sometimes the couple will look up from their work to find that the entire back yard is full of scented bubbles.

But the calls have continued and more violations have piled up. Local business owners still say that every time Reliable dumps wastewater into the county's sewers, the air turns foul.

"They keep saying we're being a bad neighbor," said Danielle Albert. "I'm spending hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix a situation that's been here for 30 years, and I'm the bad neighbor?"

In a case of neighbor versus neighbor, it's difficult to say who stepped out of bounds first. Both sides claim that unprintable words have been exchanged and they've been intimidated by the other.

County officials say the Alberts have behaved aggressively toward them, so now when they investigate odor complaints, they're often accompanied by a sheriff's deputy, an irony not lost on Michael Albert, who retired from the Sheriff's Office after eight years as a deputy. Convinced that the county is manufacturing evidence against them, the Alberts have begun videotaping Pinellas staff and neighbors while they're making odor complaints.

Of the four commissioners who approved the zoning change, two — Janet Long and Charlie Justice — now say they wish they could take back their votes. Commissioners Susan Latvala and Ken Welch say they still believe it was the best option they had.

"We'd arrived at a compromise based on the owner's promise," Welch said. "He hasn't fulfilled that promise."

Everyone believes this is headed to court.

"We've done everything they've asked," Danielle Albert said. "We don't feel there is an odor issue off of our property."

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Sewage standoff pits Pinellas County, neighbors, against waste business 06/08/13 [Last modified: Sunday, June 9, 2013 1:14am]
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