Just after the start of the year, the people behind the proposed landfill southeast of Dade City issued a simple request: Judge their project on its merits.
Of course, at the time, Angelo's Aggregate Materials had in hand a draft of the state's approval for their permit applications. They had begun to meet with journalists to try to build public support for the idea of burying Pasco County's future trash instead of burning it at an expanded incinerator.
Public acceptance? Unlikely, unless you live somewhere else, have your own well for drinking water, or sold your land to Angelo's for millions of dollars. The proposed landfill is roughly a mile from the Green Swamp, an environmentally protected area that is the headwaters of four rivers including the Hillsborough, a drinking water source for the city of Tampa.
Dominic Iafrete and John Arnold assured their project exceeded state safeguards, was in a location not at substantial risk of sinkholes, and would provide a less-costly, long-term solution to garbage disposal for Pasco County or other local governments in the region.
My own interpretation was that Angelo's suffered in the court of public opinion because of its earlier, ill-conceived actions during this two-year-long debate. Among them:
• Recruiting the stamp of approval from a Sierra Club chapter two counties away, the endorsement from which included the inaccurate reasoning that the landfill was a good fit because of its close proximity to the county incinerator in Shady Hills. The two sites are actually 28 miles apart.
• Bankrolling a political campaign-like direct-mail flier containing misleading data about the county's trash incinerator in a misguided attempt to create public opposition to expanding the Shady Hills plant. It infuriated county commissioners.
• Spreading around $184,000 in political and charitable contributions to try to curry favor with elected officials and community power brokers. Arnold even characterized the money for the political mailer as altruistic giving since its aim was a cleaner environment.
The tactics are duplicitous, erode public trust in your motives and run contrary to the stated sentiment of having your proposal judged on its merits. During that January interview, I suggested the company, if it did obtain its permits, would need to rebuild bridges within Pasco County if it truly expected to be considered a reasonable alternative to a bigger incinerator.
That notion just grew even more remote. Three days ago, the state Department of Environmental Protection denied Angelo's permission to build and operate the landfill. The state ruled the land was at risk to sinkholes and the company had not demonstrated reasonable assurances the landfill could be built and operated safely. A system failure could send waste into underground water aquifers.
Perhaps most troubling about all this was the emergence of the sinkhole data at the 11th hour.
An Angelo's consultant, in a two-page field report, included a small-print footnote acknowledging a Jan. 5, 2007, test boring on the proposed landfill site created a sinkhole 4 feet in diameter and 2 feet deep. A branch of the DEP, Florida Geological Survey, failed to note the sinkhole activity in its own November 2007 report. Neighbors raised the issue and the state ordered a second review of the data last month — after the agency already had drafted the permit approval for the landfill.
Reasonable assurances, indeed. The state's due diligence shouldn't fall to the neighbors and their well-connected lobbyists. Regardless, the second geology report, released this week, called the risk of sinkholes moderate to high and suggested heavy equipment use could trigger more subsidence. Draft approval became a denial.
So, we are left to wonder if Angelo's remained disingenuous to the end by intentionally withholding any other mention of the sinkhole in its application. That is a logical assumption given a state geologist's report that says the sinkhole "information cannot, to my knowledge, be found anywhere else in the entire permit application.''
An appeal is expected, but there should be little complaint from the unsuccessful applicant. The state did as Angelo's asked. It judged the project on its merits.
Including the merits of information buried in tiny type.