As far as anyone but Waste Management (WM) can tell — and they’re not saying — the nation’s largest garbage hauler has the same plans it had a year ago.

It’s still looking to sink an uncapped well nearly a mile into the ground, penetrating freshwater aquifers to dispose of sometimes-toxic liquid landfill waste, called leachate. In Jackson County, heart of the Panhandle.

And if House Bill 1149 becomes law, are WM’s plans as good as embedded in state statute? You’ll get an answer from the lobbyists, but state agencies go as silent as a grave.

It’s quiet right now within the gathering storm of a corporate behemoth and citizens of this rural Florida region, but that doesn’t mean Waste Management folded its tent and withdrew its permit application — in fact, the Department of Environmental Protection confirmed this week WM’s exploratory permit application is alive and well.

I wrote twice before (here and here) about WM’s “garbage juice” plans and the mounting opposition to a Class 1 deep well in the geologically fragile, interconnected Panhandle.

As these stories pointed out, even though the well would be located at the Jackson County landfill in Campbellton, everything bad that happens underground to water resources in Jackson threatens other Panhandle counties, and vice versa. Walton, for example, is particularly threatened, with 16 spring-fed coastal dune lakes that don’t exist anywhere else in the world, three public parks featuring magnitude springs, and five DEP-run state parks with a sixth state park on the border with Bay County.

Every water body connected to the Floridan Aquifer is spring fed, and they’re all vulnerable to the potential failure of an injection well.

When I left the story, then-Jackson County Administrator Ernie Padgett and the county filed and then withdrew an injunction against WM. In August 2017 state Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, rode to the rescue, meeting with the garbage hauler, Jackson County officials and other community leaders to negotiate a new, cooperative effort to identify above-ground processes that would safely dispose of non-hazardous liquid collected at Springhill Landfill, the Jackson County site.

Gainer and Waste Management worked out a truce: WM would ask DEP to hold off processing the pending [exploratory] well permit until March 31, 2018; Jackson County would delay pursuing litigation. “I would like to commend Waste Management’s willingness to rethink this,” Gainer wrote in an August press release.

At the time, March 31 had the right ring to it. It’s a date that  gave lawmakers who wanted to be involved in finding an alternative to the well time to concentrate on the 2018 legislative session. 

But now the session’s over and the elephant still in the room is 46-page House Bill 1149 — legislation that fundamentally would change how chemically treated, recycled wastewater could be pumped into the state’s underground aquifers — legislation, by  the way,  that attracted a truckload of to-ing-and-fro-ing Waste Management lobbyists at committee stops in both chambers. The mini Waste Management convention that took over the Capitol whenever it was 1149 or Senate Bill 1308 day had to make even the most pro-business Republicans suspicious.  

Most of the people I’ve been directed to for information or for an explanation of if/how 1149 would affect Waste Management’s leachate well have some WM connection and therefore a conflict of interest. Considering DEP hasn’t taken a position on this legislation, how can I or any Floridian understand the entirety of impacts that could occur, should Florida adopt this approach to effluent disposal?

What’s worse, Jackson County is hemorrhaging leaders. County Administrator Padgett, who effectively and early-on led the charge against Waste Management’s plans, resigned  for health reasons in December. His replacement, Lyndon L. Bonner was hired in February and fired in March. Without an administrator to hold the line on the deep well, Waste Management will eat them for lunch.

As of Thursday afternoon, the governor’s office had 9 (total) calls, emails and letters in SUPPORT of HB 1149; and 3,990 (total) calls, emails, letters and petition signatures OPPOSED to it. Among that correspondence is a respectful, knowledgeable letter from the four board members of a Florida nonprofit, Safe Water for Walton. Frankly, the letter is a standout. For that reason, I feel confident the governor has seen it, and whatever he ultimately decides on the bill, at least he now is fully aware of the inadvisability of plunging through freshwater aquifers to deposit leachate, or landfill juice.

Here are a pair of excerpts:

“This region in the central Panhandle depends exclusively on substantial water recharge areas, and the unique role of the Upper Floridan Aquifer for both its drinking water supply and its growing recreational economy. Nearly every single river, creek, coastal dune lake, and major waterbody in the central Panhandle is partially or fully spring-fed from underground sources of freshwater and these aquifers. Freshwater springs in the region also serve as public State parks, contributing to the record tourism numbers that Visit Florida has enjoyed of late. …

“… We all know underground aquifers are struggling and are not as healthy as they once were — that is a stipulated fact, and one repeated often by State entities themselves in the media and at public forums. Adding to the water stressors in Florida, and our cumulative inherent risk of any pollutant-tipping supply collapse, would be
foolhardy, at this stage.” 

Also:

“… The Upper Floridan Aquifer, including our Panhandle area, supports agricultural activities worth more than $7.5 billion and provides drinking water to 10 million people.
We have learned that the pre-eminent University of Florida just last year agreed to lead a 5-year, $5 million federally funded study that involves an incredible four universities in four states around this statement:

“’The Upper Floridan Aquifer is facing significant threats to water quality and quantity, which could potentially harm food security, fiber production and vital ecosystem services.’

“Until this remarkable undertaking and comprehensive study is complete and potentially peer-reviewed, it is the fervent request of Safe Water for Walton that nothing like HB 1149 would be allowed to become State law that exacerbates or adds inherent risk to known and serious challenges.”

The point here is, HB 1149 strikes fear when state agencies directly involved don’t have even simple answers to questions about this bill.  In particular, about the safety of one leachate well in a geologically fragile region. Shouldn’t we wait to pass it until we have those answers? 

Reach Nancy Smith at [email protected] or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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