Roland Summers of Pinellas Park says it's all a big misunderstanding over botched paperwork. He never abandoned any drums of grease and pesticides from an old Coca-Cola bottling plant in Cocoa. The state begs to differ, and it is hitting Summers and two friends with some of the largest fines in state history, totaling $224,500.
State environmental officials say the whopping penalties are necessary to show that they're going to get tough on what they say is a significant problem in Florida _ the abandonment of hazardous waste products.
"This does appear to be the tip of the iceberg, and it's expensive for Floridians," said Beth Knauss, hazardous waste supervisor in the Tampa office of the state Department of Environmental Regulation (DER).
Unlike in the Summers case, DER officials don't always know the origin of unidentified, hazardous gunk. That means taxpayers get stuck with the bill for the battery of tests needed to determine the origin. Taxpayers also pay the packing, shipping and disposal costs.
Officials estimate that the Tampa district office alone _ one of five in the state _ gets at least one abandoned hazardous waste case each week. Average price per barrel: $2,300, not including the $500 in DER employees' time.
"There's no one else out there to handle it. That's it. We're the bottom line," said Kean Jalowy, in the DER's emergency response program in Tallahassee.
The case of Summers and his friends reached the desk of DER Secretary Carol Browner last week after months of investigation and review in the agency's Tampa office.
The tale begins at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Cocoa that the company was converting into office space last winter. By February, records show, the work had turned up barrels of old greases and oils, caustic and acidic cleaners, and pesticides. At least 13 of the 28 drums contained substances deemed hazardous by state and federal agencies.
Coca-Cola brought in an environmental consulting firm to advise it how best to dispose of the material legally. The consultant hired a subcontractor to move the stuff.
That's where Summers comes in. He said Thursday that he acted as a broker, giving the consultant the name of a waste hauler who had the proper permits to handle hazardous wastes.
The hauler, in turn, hired a friend of Summers to truck the waste drums 150 miles from Cocoa to a permitted waste handler in Tampa.
But when the friend with the truck, Charles Baker, showed up at the Tampa facility, the facility refused to accept his cargo, saying that the permits accompanying it were improper.
Baker then hauled his freight to Pinellas Park, where another friend, Frank Adams, the owner of Frank's Truck Repair on 118th Avenue N, said he could store the truck trailer and its contents until the problems were sorted out.
That's where DER and Pinellas sheriff's investigators found the drums Feb. 20. They had decided to check out the drums after a computer detected incorrect numbers on hazardous waste permits for the drums. DER officials estimate the drums had been stored improperly for at least two weeks.
"The guy from the sheriff's office kept saying, "I can put you in jail.' He must have said that 20 times," Adams, the truck repair owner, said Thursday. "So I finally asked, "What could you put me in jail for?'
"And he said he could charge me with having an illegal dump site.
"But then I said, "Nothing's been dumped. It's all right there.'
Adams said he has heard little about the incident since, although he said he has tried to contact the sheriff's investigator.
According to DER records, the agency will seek a $67,500 penalty from Adams for his role in the incident.
"I'm an innocent bystander in all of this, and yet I'm right in the middle of it somehow," Adams said.
Baker could not be reached for comment. The DER wants him to pay a $44,500 fine.
But DER is seeking the biggest penalty _ $112,500 _ from Summers. Agency records say he and the people he brought together lacked the documentation and the liability insurance they needed to ship hazardous waste.
Summers knew he needed those requirements, the agency says, because he was the agent for a registered hazardous waste transporter until 1986. But the company he now says he works for, Florida Waste Environmental Services Inc., is not registered with the state even as an incorporated business.
As for Coca-Cola, DER officials in Tampa think the soft-drink bottler should be fined as well. The final call, though, is up to the agency's Orlando district office, which hasn't made a ruling.
Officials in Tampa said Coca-Cola and its consultant tried to get rid of its waste without first securing the needed documentation. Coca-Cola officials in Atlanta said they have met with upper-level DER officials in Tallahassee and have been told they face no agency action.
"We have been led to believe that they (DER) would not pursue any remedy with us," said Coca-Cola spokesman Jean Michel Bock. "We have been cooperating fully."