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New park part of old gypsum stack deal

Published Oct. 16, 2005

When residents, business people and politicians get together on Saturday to celebrate the expansion of a community park, they'll be marking a product of a secret deal made six years ago between a fertilizer company and a citizens group under pressure.

Residents of Progress Village, a community just east of Tampa, were appalled when phosphate maker Gardinier Inc. announced it wanted to open a gypsum stack near their community. They knew about the Gardinier stack on Hillsborough Bay, the 200-foot-high mountain that for decades has leaked pollution into the bay, and feared the environmental and health hazards a new stack could bring to their neighborhood.

The civic association even hired a lawyer to fight Gardinier when it was seeking approval for the stack from the County Commission in 1984. But the association withdrew from the fight when Gardinier, which had threatened commissioners with taking its processing plant out of the county, offered Progress Village a "community relations program" in exchange for its support. Commissioners, except for Jan Platt, quickly approved the plan, although they never knew the terms of the secret deal between Gardinier and Progress Village.

Now Gardinier has its stack, and Progress Village has $260,000 worth of park improvements, plus scholarship money, computers for Progress Village School, and the promise of more from the fertilizer giant.

The improvements include a jogging trail, a soccer/football field, a baseball field, a recreation building, two electronic scoreboards and three picnic shelters, said Gardinier spokeswoman Brenda Washburn.

On Saturday, the local Little Leaguers will play a game, and the Progress Village Crime Watch will hand out T-shirts with anti-drug slogans to the children.

"It is a very beautiful situation," said Wallace Bowers, president of the civic association.

Bowers said residents' concerns about radiation from the stack were lessened by the safeguards being used on the new stack, which has won approval from local and state regulatory agencies and is now open for business.

The new stack has been designed to keep acidic water from draining off the gypsum into the ground water. It has a two-layer clay liner, an extensive system of drains and containment ditches, and landscaping.

It will cover 326 acres, compared with the old stack's 380 acres, but can go up to only 100 feet, half the height of the old stack, according to Gardinier.

"It's got our approval," said Roger Stewart, director of the county Environmental Protection Commission. "It's going to be unsightly, but we don't regulate that."

Washburn said the company plans to do more for Progress Village. Last year, the company donated $25,000 in scholarships, gave some computers to the school, and is considering providing adult computer education.

But the 1984 agreement between Gardinier and the residents remains secret.

Washburn said Gardinier has done more for the community than the agreement said it would, but didn't elaborate.

"The relationship will be ongoing," is all Bowers would say.