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Dumped waste riles neighbor

The landowner says the treated sewage is bad for the environment, but experts say the practice is perfectly legal, safe and even beneficial.

In recent months, Enoch Booth has waged a battle against a waste spreading operation next to his 80-acre property off County Road 491.

The disgruntled south Citrus County landowner has worked against the operation in various ways, from complaining to state agencies and getting neighbors to sign petitions opposing the business to putting up angry signs visible to passers-by, including the large tankers that use W Cason Court to reach the spreading area.

His homemade placards now advertise the neighborhood as "Sewer-Ridge." It's a crude name for a quaint area marked by rolling hills and large fenced-in properties where cows roam.

Booth, a Hernando County resident, says the business has scarred the land, threatening groundwater and land values, including his own.

"You see this country?" he said recently, not far from the hilltop where he hopes to build his dream house. "It's the only country left. If it gets messed up and the water gets messed up, hey, forget it. Then this property here, you can't give it away."

The controversy sheds light on a common but little-publicized practice. Using large, open tracts of land to deposit treated waste from septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants is an essential result of development, regulators and business people say.

Human waste from septic tanks, called septage, is generally regulated by the Florida Department of Health. Filtered solids, called residuals, from wastewater treatment plants are regulated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP oversees five sites in Citrus, including the Cason property, DEP spokesman Merritt Mitchell said. The health department regulates four companies within the county, said David Conrad, an environmental supervisor with the county health department's Division of Environmental Health.

Both agencies require treatment with lime, which raises the pH level and breaks down harmful materials that cause odors, before the waste can be spread.

Millions of gallons of treated sewage are deposited across Citrus each year, and regulators and business owners say the process is safe for the environment and the public. The rules are backed up by research from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, which says the practice conserves water and provides a valuable source of agricultural fertilizer.

Florida regulators are so confident in the treated product that cattle may graze on areas where residuals were spread just 30 days before. Regulations also include 500-foot setbacks from an inhabited residence and limits on the concentration of nitrogen per acre and in groundwater.

"They are a good thing," said Stephanie Barrios, residuals coordinator for the DEP's southwest district office in Tampa. "What makes things grow is nitrogen. It's 97 percent water. It's only 3 percent residuals. So if applied properly, it's an excellent supply of water and nitrogen.

"As developments grow and grow and grow the more we flush, the more we produce," she said. "It has to go someplace. The amount these guys are applying are peanuts compared to other guys in my district. If you were living in Polk, Hillsborough or Pasco (counties), you would have heard about this 10 years ago."

Booth disputes the safety of the nearby site, saying he has seen diapers and condoms on the W Cason Court site. Barrios disputes the claim, although she said White's Septic Service needs to resolve another land use issue there. White's Septic has been told it will have to start spreading on more level ground and over a larger area.

Violations, on the whole, are rare, Barrios and other regulators say. The DEP's records indicated no infractions against Citrus residuals spreaders. Health department records on septage processors are similarly clean, Conrad said.

A few years ago, a septic tank spreading company was fined $500 because it did not stabilize the earth as regulated, he said. The company no longer is in business.

"It's definitely a safe practice if the regulations are followed," DEP residuals coordinator Maurice Barker said. "It's a very widespread practice. About 75 percent of the residuals in Florida are land applied. You have the option of landfilling it or sending it out to sea."

But despite what regulators say, people are frequently taken aback by the practice. Complaints about odor and truck noise are fairly common, Conrad and Barrios said, even though the lime is supposed to neutralize anything that creates an odor.

One site causing phone calls is a large field used by A-Able Septic & Sewer Service off County Road 486.

"It's close to a residence, and a lot of people going off 486 see it being spread," Conrad said.

A-Able's owner, Harold Buckingham, admits the industry suffers from an image problem but says the demand for spreading land will only increase because the county's wastewater treatment plant cannot handle the volume of waste.

"It's not perceived well, especially as the county continues to grow," he said. "The general public their first thought is that it is something illegal."

Buckingham, who uses a special software program to handle the state's reporting requirements, estimated the company spreads between 750,000 gallons and 1-million gallons every year. "Anybody's welcome to call us and check with us about our site," he said.

White says he tries to offend as few people as possible.

According to Barrios, "He's not confrontational. Mr. White has probably moved six times since he opened his business. His permit is spotless."

Booth is "full of s---," a combative White said several weeks ago. "Believe me, I try to find places where I'm not going to be a problem. I tell you, s--- is everybody's problem. What do you want me to do with it?"

In response to Booth's concern about groundwater quality, Barrios defended the site's safety.

"Upon touring the land, I found no surface water," she said.

For his part, Booth plans to keep a close eye on the operation.