It would be easier to protect Pasco's natural resources if county commissioners would just enforce their own environmental rules. Last week, commissioners Ted Schrader and Pat Mulieri picked development over drinking water in saying a gas station with underground storage tanks could be built along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard despite its close proximity to a public well field in Wesley Chapel.
The county's environmental protections prohibit gas stations and some other types of commercial development near well fields. The property owners asked for permission anyway, arguing their 39-year-old conceptual plans for a nonspecific commercial business superseded the county's 2002 ordinance protecting public water wells.
Fortunately, a three-commissioner majority of Jack Mariano, Henry Wilson and Ann Hildebrand didn't swallow that dubious argument and rejected the proposed gas station. County planners, attorneys and Tampa Bay Water — the regional water supplier — all concurred.
Mulieri never explained her vote, and her only comment during the entire debate was "nay'' against the staff recommendation to reject the request. It is unfortunate; she continues to sully her once outstanding record for environmental stewardship.
Schrader, who is also a member of the Tampa Bay Water board of directors, sided with the property owners, tying it to state Department of Environmental Protection rules governing underground storage tanks. He also said he feared the county's ruling couldn't withstand a legal challenge.
Their positions are disappointing. Both were members of the 2002 commission that approved the ordinance protecting wells, which was, ironically, part of a settlement to an environmental challenge to the county's land use plan.
That is imperative. The protections were not assembled in some willy-nilly manner by drawing a circle on a map. The rules followed a $220,000 study, financed by the county and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, to identify contamination threats to the water wells in Pasco.
The well in question produces up to 2 million gallons of water daily for Tampa Bay Water to distribute to the region. Losing the well to contamination would force the agency to look elsewhere for a replacement source. Tampa Bay Water General Manager Gerald Seeber pointed out that developing alternative sources to groundwater has carried a price tag of at least $10 million for every 1 million gallons of daily water production.
It's a costly proposition and an unnecessary risk the public shouldn't have to absorb. And, despite earlier contentions that improved technology safeguarded against leaking tanks, evidence suggests otherwise. The supposed new technology of double-lining underground tanks has been around since 1990, and yet 44 leaks associated with these tank systems have been reported in Pasco County over the past 22 years.
This should have been a no-brainer for the commission. The threat of fuel leaks is real. The expense of devising a replacement water source is exorbitant and the idea of harming the property owners is nonsense. County zoning rules allow approximately three dozen other commercial enterprises to develop there after excluding gas stations, car washes, auto repair shops and pest-control companies.
Protecting Pasco's environment takes more than going through the motions of writing some land-use guidelines to quiet your critics. Commissioners Schrader and Mulieri must do a better job of enforcing the rules they voted for in the first place.