DADE CITY — The Pasco County Commission began pressing Tuesday for greater scrutiny of a proposed landfill, stepping up pressure as a state decision nears this month.
While avoiding taking a hard stand on the project, the board agreed to pay a special utilities attorney to look at the Angelo's Aggregate Materials landfill planned near Dade City. The commission also will ask Tampa Bay Water to take another look at possible effects on water supply after a previous review found no problems.
And the county may add a new set of hurdles for Angelo's to win county approval for the project.
Commissioners also want state regulators to explain a decision to shift its permitting decisions over the landfill from the regional office to the Tallahassee headquarters.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said it was to avoid a potential conflict of interest. But County Commissioner Ted Schrader said opponents believe it was because the Temple Terrace district office was set to reject the project.
"I just think we need an explanation," said Schrader, a landfill critic, who suggested state officials nearby are better positioned to make the right decision.
The maneuvers stem from the state agency's Jan. 12 deadline to decide whether to issue a solid waste permit for the project. A draft permit — and a similar draft environmental permit — have been written, but no decision has been made, spokeswoman Pamala Vazquez said.
Besides the state permits, the county has to vote on the project, too — setting up political and legal jockeying around that decision. Taking a stand could risk prejudicing the county's own vote on the project. And if Pasco challenges Angelo's state permit, the county faces a difficult appeals process that could cost $150,000, County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said.
Despite those issues, Pasco officials intend to make the approval process more complicated than originally planned. In addition to securing a county permit, the county has told the state it intends to require the project to obtain a land use change under the county's longterm growth plan, growth management administrator Sam Steffey disclosed.
His preliminary finding is a landfill doesn't fit the county's future plans for growth on the land. That would trigger another state review of the project, this time by the Department of Community Affairs.
Angelo's Aggregate Materials of Largo wants a landfill that could eventually cover 1,000 acres near the Green Swamp and the Withlacoochee River. Some neighbors, east Pasco organizations and the cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace have opposed it, warning of traffic, sinkholes and threats to drinking water supplies.
The company says its project, if judged on the merits, is sound.
"We don't believe we have an application that has ever been looked at this closely under the microscope," said John Arnold, the project engineer, told the Times on Tuesday.
The latest dispute came Tuesday over DEP's decision to have officials at the Tallahassee headquarters decide whether to issue the permit. The company hired high-powered lobbyist Brian Ballard, a political ally of Gov. Charlie Crist, and donated tens of thousands of dollars to local and state lawmakers.
But Vazquez said district director Deborah Getzoff decided in early 2007 to recuse herself from the decision, sending the matter to Tallahassee. Getzoff's husband, John Voelpel, had worked for the law firm in Detroit that represents Angelo's parent company. The decision was announced at a September community meeting in Pasco, Vazquez said.
"She has never had any contact with the Angelo's representatives," Vazquez said.
Yet critics like Schrader and Carl Roth of opposition group Protectors of Florida's Legacy say the science behind the landfill is faulty — and so may be the decision making by the agency. Given the political contributions, Roth called the change "suspicious."
However, the company has promoted the project's "green" value with a promise to compost household waste into usable organic material. While it is not part of the state permitting process, Arnold said the county can require it under its approval.
Company officials have argued their project will be better than Pasco expanding its waste-to-energy incinerator in Shady Hills, though county officials dispute it.
"We're better economically. We're better environmentally" than an expansion of the incinerator, said Arnold, the project engineer.
Staff writer Lisa Buie contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6232.