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Landfill worries can't be carted off

If and when Citrus County starts shipping trash to Pasco County's incinerator, residents here can look forward to less smell from the county landfill.

Maybe even fewer sea gulls.

But anyone who thinks the trash will be out of sight and out of mind should think again. The county can't export the environmental headaches connected with its landfill.

For several years, tests have shown levels of hazardous chemicals above state limits in monitoring wells just to the west of the landfill.

County officials say there's probably no threat to people, because the relatively small amounts of contaminants are probably diluted and absorbed before they could reach the nearest private wells about 1,000 feet to the north.

In addition, groundwater flows underneath the landfill to the west, where there is only vacant state forest.

Nevertheless, the state Department of Environmental Protection recently directed the county to do more extensive tests, which could lead to a potentially expensive cleanup.

"They have a problem, but we don't know how big it is right now," said DEP geologist Allison Amram.

The news is a reminder that even a dormant landfill presents an environmental threat. The contaminants are a legacy of years of dumping in a section of the landfill that was never protected by a plastic liner, as landfills built today must be.

Ending months of indecision, the Citrus County Commission last week finally committed to a newer course for handling the county's trash: shipping 90 percent of it to Pasco's incinerator.

The Citrus commissioners have said they believe residents who moved here for the county's natural splendor would rather not continue a practice that seems not far removed from cave dwellers piling bones in a corner of their cave.

But this decision was mostly motivated by economics, not tree-hugging.

Commissioners have emphasized that a long-term contract with Pasco will be more economical because of rising costs for Citrus to continue expanding its landfill.

"When the dollars got closer together, that's when the philosophical decision (to avoid further landfilling in Citrus) became easier," said County Commissioner Gary Bartell.

County staffers now have to negotiate a contract with Pasco officials, who have expressed interest in having Citrus County as a customer at its underutilized burn plant.

The landfill's uncertain effect on the environment stems from the oldest, least safe part, a 60-acre section the county operated from 1975 to 1989.

A 17-acre expansion section was built in 1990 under new state rules that required a plastic liner. But it will reach capacity next year.

If Citrus sends trash to Pasco, it won't entirely be out of the trash business. The commissioners agreed to expand the 17-acre section to give the county an emergency backup. The expansion also will take refuse, such as tires and construction debris, that the Pasco incinerator doesn't accept.

This final phase of the landfill is predicted to last the county another 50 years.

Because of stricter state rules, it must now be built with two plastic liners separated by an impervious layer of clay.

Although that's considered state of the art, most experts agree even that isn't a 100 percent guarantee against contamination. Liners can rip.

"There's always a risk," said Susan Metcalfe, the county's director of solid waste.

That's why the unlined section, the old landfill, presents a particular risk.

To measure that threat, the site is surrounded by 11 test wells that allow regular monitoring of groundwater to detect any pollution coming from the landfill. Groundwater in the area flows from east to west.

The contaminants have shown up in the two wells west of the old landfill.

They include vinyl chloride, a byproduct from the breakdown of some solvents, and benzene, an ingredient in gasoline.

The vinyl chloride was at three times the state's allowed maximum of 1 milligram per liter, while the benzene was at that limit.

The state limit is based on safe drinking water standards. However, water-quality testing is generally done on wells a quarter-mile to a half-mile from suspected contamination, and there are none that close to the landfill.

Similar contaminants also have shown up in about 10 other landfills overseen by the Tampa office of the state Department of Environmental Protection. Some have been at lesser concentrations and some were higher, said Amram, the DEP geologist.

The state can require polluters to pump contaminants from underground, but that generally doesn't happen unless concentrations of hundreds of milligrams per liter are detected, Metcalfe said.

If the concentrations in the Citrus landfill don't rise above current levels, the state will probably not require a cleanup, agreed Amram. "The concentrations they have now (are so low they) probably couldn't be cleaned up," because the technology isn't available, she said.

Nevertheless, there is some cause for concern. The state and county don't know how much hazardous material is in the old landfill, or how deep it goes.

"Whatever damage has been done, if any, is already there," County Commissioner Jim Fowler said.

No one knows, for example, that there isn't a cache of drums of hazardous waste that could be slowly leaking. Since Citrus was never an industrialized area, officials say that threat probably is not great.

In Citrus County, the Floridan Aquifer, the region's principal source of drinking water, is especially close to the surface _ only about 90 feet below the Citrus landfill, Amram said. Water can easily flow down from the surface.

The most common solution involves covering the source of the pollution _ and that already has been done. The old landfill was capped with a plastic liner and a layer of topsoil in 1991.

That means that rainwater is no longer washing through the trash and into groundwater below. "We would not expect it to get any worse," Metcalfe said.

For that reason, and because of the relatively low concentrations of contaminants turned up so far, Metcalfe said, "I think that right now we have as good a solution as you can have with a landfill."

Workers at the Citrus landfill currently inspect any suspicious loads at the gatehouse. And commercial haulers are subject to random inspections of three truckloads a week.

"I know it's a fear of many people that landfills will pollute their groundwater, and there are several places in Florida where that effect has happened," Metcalfe said.

"It's not something to be paranoid about, but it's something to be concerned about."