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County should stop gamble with aquifer

Published Sep. 13, 2005

For the past three years, Pasco County government officials have spent considerable time and money negotiating with their neighbors, butting heads with the regional water authority and lobbying the governor and Legislature to protect the quantity of water beneath the surface of the county.

Unfortunately, the quality of that groundwater has not received the same high-priority status.

As detailed by Times reporter Jo Becker, the county learned in 1992 its garbage-disposal process was polluting the Floridan Aquifer, the underground source of the area's drinking water. But no remedy came for four years, and the supposed solution, a $4-million plant to treat the contaminated byproduct from the trash incinerator in Shady Hills, does not work.

The county, instead, had to store the leachate, a mixture of water and the ash generated by the incinerator. And it did a poor job of it.

Bags of highly salty ash were supposed to be contained in just a third of the dump. But, the county put them throughout the storage area, and the bags leaked. That means water accumulated from last fall's heavy rainfall is contaminated from exposure to the leachate.

Now, state regulators and the county's own consultant fear an environmental emergency awaits if the county does not dispose of millions of gallons of polluted rainwater before the summer rainy season begins next month.

The county staff has resisted some disposal methods because of the expense involved. Notably, the staff balked at transporting the water to a wastewater treatment plant in Jacksonville and the accompanying $4-million cost.

A safe water supply should not be subjected to dawdling. Delaying the cleanup could push the price tag significantly higher if water containing lead, cadmium, sodium and chlorides manages to escape the berm and sifts down to the aquifer.

Essentially, the county is betting the quality of the aquifer that it won't rain and that the liners beneath the berm will hold the 30-million gallons of polluted water that rest atop them. Such environmental roulette is unsettling, particularly considering the unreliability of the key component of the solution, the $4-million plant.

Just as disturbing is the notion of county workers replacing two nearby private wells without telling at least one of the homeowners why it was done: The county feared it had polluted his well. Withholding information will not build public confidence in the overall remedy.

That solution needs to be done quickly and correctly. The state Department of Environmental Protection is right to push the county to act. Pasco already faces a state-ordered $200,000 cleanup of the aquifer. With that in mind, the County Commission should be asking its staff:

Why did you wait four years to first attempt to stop the groundwater pollution?

Why doesn't that plant work properly?

Why did you put bags of polluted material in an area for which they weren't intended?

Why wasn't the public told of contaminated wells? Are other wells at risk?

Is it prudent to gamble that the berms will hold until you get a final solution?

And most importantly, what will be the ultimate cost if we screw this up?

The answers are vital. Just five days after concluding years of work to guarantee a plentiful water supply for the region and protections for Pasco County's environment, commissioners would be remiss if they did not work just as vigorously to ensure the quality of that groundwater is beyond reproach.