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Garbage study offer puts county in bind

The offer to county commissioners is simple: A university professor will conduct a thorough study on the potential health effects of Pasco's garbage incinerator. No county money is needed, just cooperation.

The political dilemma is clear: Rejecting the offer implies the county does not want to know whether its incinerator is harming Pasco residents. Endorsing it means opening the door for attacks on the county's $90-million incinerator, perhaps paving the way for demands for costly changes.

Cautious commissioners heard the pitch for the study Tuesday afternoon and then lobbed the matter over to staff for further review.

"I don't want to support it until I find out more information," said Commissioner Hap Clark.

The idea for the incinerator study came from two of the facility's most ardent opponents, residents Donna Slattery and Susan Elko. For years, they have been telling everyone who will listen how the incinerator is polluting the Shady Hills area, endangering residents and the environment.

Last month, they contacted Dr. Stuart Brooks, chairman of the department of environmental and occupational health at the University of South Florida, and told him their fears that the incinerator is causing respiratory problems in Shady Hills.

Brooks said he would welcome an opportunity to assess the potential health risks from the incinerator. If the county government and the community endorse the idea, he will seek a research grant from the state or from the National Institute of Health. If the grant is approved, he will spend a year or so studying the incinerator's effects.

Assistant County Administrator Doug Bramlett, whose utilities division oversees the incinerator, said after the commission meeting that he has concerns about how the study would be conducted. He noted that the facility meets state and federal environmental standards, adding, "I really don't see a need" for a study.

The details, including the scientific methodology, have yet to be worked out, and County Administrator John Gallagher said he expects the county probably would want to hire an expert to ensure such a study were carried out properly.

"My concern is that we end up with a protocol that everybody agrees to,"' Gallagher said.

Brooks said he would insist on that. He told commissioners that at this stage, he has heard only undocumented stories about health problems around Shady Hills. He told commissioners that he knew of few such health studies on incinerators, but outside the board room noted, "There are some health studies coming out now that suggest there may be some adverse health effects."

Commissioner Ed Collins said he likes the idea of the study, which he predicted ultimately would "allay the fears of all the residents of this community." Other commissioners were more skeptical.

Brooks said he can't be sure he will obtain funding for the study and that he will not pursue it if the county is not interested. "I'm not particularly interested in banging my head against the wall if nobody is interested in doing it.

In other action Tuesday:

Commissioners, without coming up with any conclusions, discussed what looks to be one of the most expensive capital projects in the future _ stormwater management. Among the issues to be considered is how ambitious the county wants to be in helping alleviate flooding problems in some areas, how much money should be spent, and how the projects should be paid for.

A draft study has identified about 70 capital projects to address the stormwater and drainage problems, and depending on how much the county wants to do, the costs could be as high as $37-million or as low as $750,000. Commissioners avoiding taking any strong positions on options such as raising the gas tax. Instead, they directed staff to find out how much funding could be obtained from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The board unanimously approved the first phase of what eventually is slated to become an 800-home development, Palm Lake Estates. The development is on U.S. 41 south of State Road 52, and the first phase includes 169 homes on 116-acres.

The board unanimously approved raising the salary of Chief Assistant County Attorney Karla Stetter from $54,000 to $67,500 while she serves as interim county attorney. Stetter stepped in to replace Tom Bustin, who resigned as county attorney last week. He was earning $79,000.