The Florida Department of Environmental Protection needs to rely on science, not sentiment, as it considers appropriate safeguards to separate protected land from trash landfills that pose potential threats to drinking water sources.
The agency's inconsistency in considering similar proposals — one in Charlotte County in 2007 and now an application from Angelo's Aggregate Materials for a landfill in eastern Pasco County between Dade City and the Green Swamp — has opened the agency to fair criticism that its rules are applied unevenly.
As Times staff writer David DeCamp detailed, DEP managers told Charlotte County in April 2007 that a landfill within a mile of 74,000 acres of preserved land, the Babcock Ranch, would harm wildlife, smell bad to the public, attract scavengers and possibly contaminate future water sources if the landfill design failed.
The DEP issued the opinion even though there was no application pending before it. The agency agreed that Charlotte County commissioners should reject the land use application from Omni Waste Landfill to build its operation 4,500 feet from the state-owned Babcock Ranch.
Such sentiment is missing now as the DEP considers Angelo's application to build its landfill within 4,100 feet of the Green Swamp, of which 136,000 acres is owned or protected by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The Green Swamp is home to the headwaters of four major rivers, including the Hillsborough, a source of Tampa's drinking water.
Angelo's has said its site does not pose a threat to the Green Swamp, exceeds setback requirements and has enough built-in protections to safeguard the environment in case of a sinkhole. After nearly two years of review, the DEP indicated it agreed, drafting approval of Angelo's permit application in December. A formal ruling, twice delayed already, is expected this month and administrative challenges are anticipated afterward.
While Angelo's and its opponents gird for a prolonged legal battle, the DEP should consider its own internal discordance. The DEP recommendation in Charlotte County came from its Division of State Lands. Last September, DEP's waste management director promised an auditorium full of people in Dade City the agency would confer with its land managers before ruling on Angelo's permit application.
In the wake of that pledge, it is odd now that the DEP says its lands division did not produce a single document about an opinion on the Angelo's project.
More problematic is the people involved in that promised conferral. DEP's deputy director of lands and recreation is Bob Ballard, whose brother, Brian, is lobbying on behalf of Angelo's. The agency and the lobbyist both said there has been no interaction between the brothers on the proposed landfill in Pasco. Regardless, Bob Ballard attended a Nov. 20 meeting to discuss the proximity of Angelo's land to the state-owned property and the agency did not state publicly that Ballard would recuse himself from a role in the Angelo's case until after the permit approval had been drafted.
The chumminess is disconcerting as is the agency's contradictory sentiment on siting landfills. It is that kind of inconsistency that lends validity to a bill from Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who, in responding to concerns from Dade City constituents, called for a moratorium on landfill applications near environmentally sensitive land until the state can review how its rules are applied.
A year ago that bill looked like a knee-jerk attempt by Crist to curry favor in what would be a politically popular fight. Now it looks like he may be on to something. If the DEP is unable to explain why things are different in Charlotte County than in Pasco, then its rulemaking authority should be scrutinized by the Legislature.