1. News

'Garbage juice' seen as threat to drinking water in Florida Panhandle county

To Waste Management, the nation's largest handler of garbage, the liquid that winds up at the bottom of a landfill is called "leachate," and it can safely be disposed of in a well that's 4,200 feet deep.

But to residents of mostly rural Jackson County, the stuff is just "garbage juice," and it carries a toxic taint that they don't want in their drinking water. Their allies include the NAACP, all five county commissioners and their Republican state senator.

"Everybody in Jackson County that wasn't making money off of it was against it," said Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City.

So now the Goliath-sized garbage company and the David-sized county are locked in a battle over whether underground disposal of pollution is safe. People in Jackson County (pop. 49,000) don't trust Gov. Rick Scott's Department of Environmental Protection. They see it as too business-friendly, too willing to kowtow to polluters in the name of generating jobs.

The DEP does not inspect wells or take samples once they're operating, Jackson County administrator Ernie Padgett said. Instead the DEP relies on businesses to do that themselves, or hire someone to do it, he said.

"So a profit-driven company pulls a sample and an entity they pay does the analyzing," he said. That paperwork then goes to the DEP "and they file it away in a cabinet."

Storing pollution in deep wells is not new in Florida. DEP spokeswoman Lauren Engel said there are 262 so-called "injection wells" storing a variety of contaminants down where no one can see them. Four of them store leachate, she said.

"We have more injection wells in Florida than any other state," said Linda Young of the Clean Water Network, a Panhandle-based environmental group. "The appeal is, it's out of sight and out of mind. Nobody worries about it because nobody sees it. The problem is, nobody monitors it."

Engel of the DEP contended that the agency does, in fact, inspect the wells, both before and after they are operational.

Waste Management officials contend that the injection wells around the state — some of which have been operating since the 1960s — have experienced no failures and thus are safe.

But that's not true.

Pinellas County officials revealed in 1998 that, for seven years, some of the 20 million gallons of wastewater that they had been injecting into a deep well every day had been leaking back to the surface. It had spread more than a mile from the well at the Cross Bayou plant.

State officials said contamination from that migrating sewage was creeping into private wells in the area, although not enough to force a shutdown. Nevertheless, Pinellas abandoned its deep-well injection entirely and spent $100 million on a system to deliver the wastewater to barrier island communities for irrigation.

Despite that history, St. Petersburg has used injection wells for 40 years to dispose of treated sewage. This summer, as part of its preparations to make its beleaguered sewer systems ready for heavy rainfall, the city is drilling two additional wells. If necessary, city officials have said, the city will pump partly treated sewage down the wells to prevent discharges into Tampa Bay or local streets and waterways — even though that would violate state law.

In the Jackson County dispute, Waste Management area engineer Brian Dolihite contends that injecting the liquid nearly a mile underground is actually safer for the environment than the way the company gets rid of it now.

The 600-acre landfill, plopped down in a predominantly black residential area in the small town of Campbellton, has been operating since the 1980s. Waste Management bought it in 1990. The landfill produces an average of 40,000 gallons of leachate every day that has to be disposed of, Dolihite said.

"We haul it in tanker trucks to three area wastewater treatment plants," he said. One is run by neighboring Okaloosa County. Two others are operated by the small towns of Marianna and Sneads.

The wastewater treatment plants then treat the leachate the same way they do sewage and stormwater. Then they spray the treated waste over a field to soak into the ground, letting the earth filter it before it gets to the aquifer.

"We feel like using an injection well is more protective of the groundwater source," he said.

Both Dolihite and company spokesman Marc Ehrhardt said that the sewer plants now accepting the leachate have told Waste Management they can't take any more than the current load. That's the other reason why the company has to spend more than $6 million on the 4,000-foot well, they said.

But officials from both Sneads and Marianna have said that's false. Neither plant is running at full capacity and could accept more, they said in letters to the NAACP.

Some of the rage in Jackson County against Waste Management was sparked by the feeling that the company and DEP were trying to sneak the permit through, said Jackson County NAACP president Ronstance Pittman, whose father lives near the landfill.

But company officials say they followed what state law requires. Waste Management bought a single classified ad in the back pages of one local paper, the Jackson County Floridan, announcing the one and only public hearing on the permit. Only one person showed up — a reporter for the Floridan.

That was the first local residents and county officials had heard about it, Padgett said.

"Once we saw what was going on, the concern level went up pretty rapidly," the county administrator said.

The DEP has drafted a permit to allow Waste Management to drill an exploratory deep well, but has yet to decide whether to issue it. According to agency spokeswoman Lauren Engel, "Waste Management has the burden to collect and provide geologic data showing the proposed site is suitable . . . and will be protective of both the environment and human health."

Gainer, the state senator, said he's convinced the DEP's skids were greased to grant the permit before all the uproar began and he got involved. He contended that the basic principle of sticking pollution deep underground, hiding it from the public, shows how sketchy it is.

"How do you know what's going on 5,000 feet down in the ground?" he asked. "Everybody thought the Deepwater Horizon was a safe place to drill for oil, too."

Times reporter Charlie Frago and senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.