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City told it must monitor landfill

Talk about the gift that keeps on giving.

For years, kids played on the soccer and baseball fields built on top of an old landfill at the northwest corner of Drew Street and Old Coachman Road, but St. Petersburg College, which owned the land, never had to worry about any yucky stuff lurking beneath the grass.

Then last year, the college agreed to give the 32 acres of old landfill to the city, so that Clearwater could build a new Philadelphia Phillies spring training stadium.

Well, the Phillies ultimately rejected the site and decided to build their stadium elsewhere.

Now, the city may someday wish the gift of the land had a return policy.

State regulators recently told Clearwater officials they need to deal with possible environmental problems at the old landfill, because the city took on the responsibility for any needed cleanup of the site when it agreed last year to accept the gift of land from SPC.

City officials insist that they are not concerned about the situation at this point.

"I think the analysis so far (of the site) really wasn't all that alarming," said City Manager Bill Horne. "I get concerned when I have a reason to be concerned. In this case I need more information."

But one nearby neighborhood activist sees it differently.

"If they had listened to us two years ago, and not just abandoned us, it would be the college's problem," said Dennis Roper, the chairman of the Northeast Clearwater Regional Homeowners.

At a minimum, according to a recent letter from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the city needs to have a plan to monitor the site for potential environmental problems, even if Clearwater just continues to use the land for soccer and baseball fields and never redevelops it.

Monitoring should include checking buildings around the site to make sure that they do not accumulate explosive concentrations of methane gas, which builds up underground in landfills as waste decomposes, said Michael Gonsalves, a geologist who oversees landfill cleanups for the DEP.

The DEP also wants the city to install wells to monitor groundwater quality around the edges and in the center of the site, to be sure that no chemicals are seeping into the groundwater, which could ultimately affect local water supplies, Gonsalves said.

If either gas or contamination of groundwater becomes an issue, the city will be required to clean up the site, Gonsalves said.

Finally, the DEP wants to have a written agreement with the city outlining the department's expectations for additional work on the site. Previously, city staff members have said they didn't think such an agreement was necessary.

Gonsalves said preliminary groundwater tests have already shown possible contamination problems with the site, a former Pinellas County landfill, so some additional scrutiny is needed. Those tests revealed quantities of boron, iron, ammonia and other compounds in excess of state standards, records show.

Unlike the city, St. Petersburg College was never required to create a plan to monitor the site. When the college owned the land, state officials recommended in 1998 that at some point the landfill should be assessed to determine any environmental issues, records show, but that didn't happen until now.

Gonsalves said that the state simply did not have enough information back then to begin scrutinizing the site, and that's not unusual. Many counties _ including Pinellas County _ don't have thorough records of old landfills that were closed before 1975, when the state began regulating them.

And the DEP doesn't have the manpower to compile such lists and investigate every old landfill on its own, Gonsalves said. As a result, many old landfills aren't usually scrutinized until plans are proposed to redevelop them and potential environmental or construction problems arise.

Without further information, both city and state officials said it was impossible to determine what the cost of monitoring and any cleanup could be.

The proposed new site for the Phillies stadium is nearby the landfill at the site of a former Home Depot store on U.S. 19 just north of Drew Street.