In an air-conditioned control room just above the mounds of garbage, incinerator manager Vince Mannella scanned a row of colorful computer monitors.
"This plant runs like a Rolex," he declared happily. "Gospel truth, just like a Rolex."
But some people think the county's incinerator operation is ticking more like a time bomb than a finely tuned watch.
In a nearby dump sits 30-million gallons of toxic rainwater contaminated by the incinerator's ash. State environmental regulators fear it could overflow, burst through the dump's berms or blow out the dump's special liner.
If that happens, the water, which is contaminated with dangerous chemicals such as lead and cadmium, would quickly find its way into the Florida aquifer, the source of this area's water supply.
"We have a potential environmental disaster waiting to happen," the county's own consultant, Richard Mayer, wrote in a December memo.
The "emergency" situation "poses a serious threat" and "threatens adjacent wells and water users," warned Rick Garrity, head of the Tampa office of the Department of Environmental Protection. Pasco officials received his letter just last week.
Water isn't supposed to collect in the ash dump; it is supposed to be piped away and treated. Both Mannella and his boss, county utility director Doug Bramlett, blame El Nino for the county's problems.
"There's no way we could have handled all that rain," Bramlett said.
But the county has itself to blame, according to the DEP. Officials there contend that a series of missteps and miscalculations created problems long before El Nino.
And, in an effort to save money, the county has persistently failed to move quickly to address those problems, DEP says.
"We have been repeatedly telling them for the past six months, warning them that if they don't get rid of this stuff by June they are going to be in a world of hurt because it's going to start raining again," said Kim Ford, who works in the DEP's solid waste division.
County Administrator John Gallagher, the man ultimately responsible, could not be reached for comment.
Mannella and Bramlett say the DEP is overreacting. They say the county is doing the best it can while officials search for faster alternatives that are cost effective.
For now, they are gambling that it won't rain excessively and that the dump's liner and berms will hold.
The chances of a prolonged, heavy rain are "very, very slim," Mannella said. "I don't think we have a problem. Does that mean I don't worry about it? No, I worry about it every day and every night. That's my job. As long as I worry about it, the county commissioners don't have to."
That's good enough for Commission Chairwoman Sylvia Young, who received a copy of Garrity's letter.
His dire predictions, she said, are just "one man's prediction. I understand that we're doing everything that can be done."
Like Bramlett and Mannella, she is also worried about costs.
Commissioners have already borrowed close to $4-million to build a plant designed to treat the contaminated water, a plant that has almost never worked properly, and at the moment does not work at all.
But up to millions more may be needed before the problem is solved to the DEP's satisfaction.
Still, failing to deal with the problem now could be even more costly, both in terms of dollars and potential health problems.
The county would likely have time to clean up the mess before it contaminated anyone's wells, according to Dr. Joe Sekerke, a toxicologist with the state department of health. But it "wouldn't be easy and it wouldn't be cheap."
And, Sekerke said, left unchecked, there is some chance it could be concentrated enough to potentially cause serious health problems, ranging from brain damage in children to cancer.
"'People don't need to immediately panic if this stuff goes over the berm," Sekerke said. "But everything possible should be done to prevent that from happening."
From the beginning, the incinerator's critics said something like this could happen.
Seven years ago, they protested, fasted and fought a legal battle to keep the plant from opening. County Commissioner Pat Mulieri cut her political teeth in the fight.
Critics feared the ash dump would somehow leak into the aquifer, which is especially porous in the Shady Hills area.
County officials promised that could never happen.
As an added precaution, a special, double liner was constructed to hold the ash. At the time, only a single liner was required.
But almost from the day the incinerator opened, there were problems.
The incinerator burns garbage, producing ash contaminated with salts and dangerous metals. The ash is placed in dumps. Rain falling on the dumps creates contaminated water called leachate.
Initially, the county piped leachate to a nearby wastewater treatment plant. There, it was mixed in with regular sewage and treated, then sent to ponds, where it seeped into the earth.
The process removed most of the dangerous metals, and the hope was that the salts would be diluted enough to meet federal and state ground- and drinking-water standards. It had worked elsewhere.
But as early as 1991, the year the incinerator opened, test wells showed that salts were beginning to contaminate the aquifer. By 1992, records show that county officials knew the problem was due to the extremely salty nature of its ash leachate. But rather than pay to haul the leachate away, the county continued to pollute the ponds for four more years while it searched for and put in place a solution.
"At that point, we didn't know how severe the problem was," said Bramlett. "It wasn't like, "Oh, we have a major contamination problem right now.' It just kept creeping up on us and getting worse and worse."
It wasn't until 1995 that alarm bells went off at the DEP.
The following year, the DEP ordered the county to quit sending the leachate to the wastewater treatment plant. It also ordered the county to come up with a plan to suck from the aquifer the huge salty blob of water, which is migrating slowly to the northwest and has already caused the county to replace two fouled private wells. The cleanup, yet to be started, will cost an estimated $200,000.
Before the county even signed off on the DEP's order, it had come up with a new plan. Officials proposed to build a special leachate management plant that would evaporate the water, leaving behind a solid mass of salts and metals.
Those solids would be double-bagged in plastic and placed back on the ash dump. That raised some concerns with Ford, the DEP official, who worried that if the bags broke, the leachate would become even more concentrated and difficult to treat than it already was.
Darwish El-Hajji, the county's consultant, agreed and promised only "a minimum amount of bag breakage."
The leachate treatment plant came on line in May 1997 and was hailed in a trade publication as a cutting edge solution to a tricky problem.
But once again, the county encountered trouble.
The DEP-approved operating plan called for the dump to be divided into thirds. Ash was to be placed in the dump one-third at a time, while the rest would be kept ash-free. That way, most of the rain falling on the dump could simply be drained off without treatment.
But county officials placed the bags of salt in the ash-free part of the dump, and almost immediately the bags began breaking. In the process, officials contaminated the entire dump. That had the effect of tripling the amount of leachate needing treatment every time it rained.
"Duh, bad call," said Pete Burghardt, a DEP official put in charge of forcing Pasco into compliance.
Meanwhile, the $4-million plant, which was supposed to process 35,000 gallons of leachate a day, worked properly for only one month. After that, it was sometimes good for only a small portion of that, or none at all.
Leachate began to build up in the dump.
In October, unusually heavy rains for the second consecutive month made Bramlett realize he had to do something. He asked DEP to allow him to treat the leachate at a few of the county's other wastewater treatment plants. He also began negotiating with the city of Tampa to treat the leachate at its huge wastewater plant, whose size virtually assured success.
Burghardt gave Bramlett a 30-day tryout. Using the plant the county shares with New Port Richey was fine: its treated wastewater discharges into the already salty Gulf of Mexico.
But if the levels of salts were even a little too high at any of the other county plants, Burghardt said, it would have to stop immediately: Another groundwater pollution site was the last thing anybody needed.
Bramlett hired a hauler. But after only a few runs, with the exception of New Port Richey, the operation came to a halt. The ash was just too salty.
As if matters weren't bad enough, the leachate treatment plant completely broke down in November. And again that month, the rains were unusually heavy.
The DEP sent a warning letter: Too much leachate was pressing down on the dump's liner, and the county wasn't treating enough of it to keep up with even the new rain.
The county hired someone to design a rain cap, expected to cost $85,000, to stop the rain from falling into part of the dump. To do that, at least that portion of the dump had to be dry. But inexplicably, the county decided to cut back the amount it was hauling.
"We were being promised (by the plant's manufacturer) almost on a daily basis that the plant was going to be back on line," said Bramlett.
The timing could not have been worse. El Nino's rains flooded the county in December.
County officials turned frantic. The leachate plant still wasn't working. New Port Richey and Tampa were taking some of the polluted water, but not enough.
Bramlett wrote to the DEP, proposing to resume piping the leachate back through its Shady Hills wastewater treatment plant, where it would then enter the same ponds that were the genesis of the first groundwater contamination.
The memo came to Burghardt. He took one look, grabbed his pen and scrawled one word across the top:
In January, New Port Richey told the county to stop delivering the leachate to its plant. The stuff was killing the plant's ability to treat wastewater, city officials said.
That same month, a DEP department head in Tampa indicated that more needed to be done, no matter what the cost.
"Pasco County has refused to haul leachate long distances, which is routinely practiced at other solid waste facilities," he wrote.
In February, the county finally found a plant in Jacksonville that would treat a third of the entire mess.
The price tag to haul it there and treat it: $4.1-million.
That, Bramlett wrote Garrity, was "cost-prohibitive."
New Port Richey pulled the plug in February. City utility manager Thomas O'Neill penned an angry letter to Bramlett. The county, he said, had continued to use the plant despite the city's request to cease doing so and "with the county staff's full knowledge of the detrimental effect leachate has on the wastewater treatment plant process."
Between February and April, the county continued to haul 72,000 gallons per day to Tampa, less than a third of what the DEP believes is needed to get the situation under a measure of control.
This is the situation today:
The dump is about three feet from overflowing. Each day, more ash is added, which makes the water level rise. A protracted period of heavy rains could send the leachate spilling over.
Meanwhile, 12 times more water presses down on the liner than there should be. And the berms weren't designed to withstand any water pressure at all.
The good news is that the primary liner, which is expected to leak some, is leaking 1,200 gallons per day, well within acceptable limits.
Tampa has agreed to take 125,000 gallons per day. And the county hopes to get its treatment plant back on line some time this month.
"It'll be enough to prevent a spill," Bramlett said.
But the DEP isn't so sure. Officials there are in the process of deciding whether to order the county to do more.
Garrity, the head of Tampa's DEP, said theoretically, Tampa may be able to double the amount of leachate it is currently treating. If that happens, and if the county's own plant actually works, it may be enough in the short run, he said.
"My feeling is that during this next month, before the rainy season starts, they have to nail all this down," he said.