Citrus County Chronicle

Citrus County is known for its natural beauty, its lush landscapes, its natural first-magnitude springs, its clear water rivers and its clean fresh air.

Our economy depends in part on the ever-increasing number of tourists who visit our homey small towns and natural attractions.

Our citizens depend on the leaders they have elected to keep them safe and protect that environment, which for a large part is why they live and work in this beautiful community we call home.

When my office first discovered through the media that “toxic waste” was going to be shipped from Fort Myers into Citrus County we were shocked! I could not understand how that would ever be allowed by our state government that I have had the honor and privilege of serving you in these past two years. And it is important to note while my office, nor any legislator, has authority to decide this matter since it is handled through the executive branch of our government, as your representative I felt it was my duty to investigate and research the matter thoroughly, contact the particular state agencies that would be involved, inform them of our concerns and report to back to you.

My staff and I spent hours researching the issues, science and history of the sludge in Fort Myers. We talked with city officials in Fort Myers and Crystal River, consultants, environmental engineers, scientists, toxicologists, operators of the LafargeHolcim plants in Crystal River and Alabama, members of the media, and several officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) including the Deputy Secretary for Operations.

What we discovered was that there are basically two parts to the sludge dilemma. One part involves the material, or sludge, itself; and, the other part involves where the material is located and the somewhat ambiguous reasons it was located there initially over 55 years ago.

In reviewing the scientific data done by independent licensed firms, the material is residue from a limestone softening filtration water treatment facility. It is clay-like in consistency and it contains higher levels of arsenic than what is acceptable currently in residential developments in Florida. When it was first deposited in the early 1960s no regulations existed. During some earlier studies of groundwater, sporadic arsenic levels exceeded the regulatory level of 0.01 milligrams/liter for drinking water, but this was not the case for standing water at the site, which continues to test within the acceptable range.

The residential communities surrounding the material have been on a central water system since the 1970s and private wells are only used for irrigation. More recent well tests have also not shown any significant changes.

Other tests were performed to determine if the arsenic had any capacity to leach out of the material and affect the surrounding area or water sources. Those tests did not show any significant leaching.

Tests were also performed that characterize “hazardous waste” and are also used in landfills to determine contamination. Those tests likewise failed to determine any hazardous levels. Comparative analyses were also done, even with higher levels of arsenic, all showing no impact to the health of the individuals involved.

The conclusions of these studies in total were that the soil arsenic concentrations in the material involved do not pose a short-or long-term health concern to the people in the surrounding neighborhoods. Additionally, if one studies the natural soil content of arsenic in Florida one would find levels more than twice as high as the highest level found at the sludge site. In fact, in many other states where arsenic levels are higher naturally than Florida, the standard acceptable levels are much higher than those found in the sludge, and also countries in Europe and Asia are several times higher.

According to the FDEP, if the site was zoned commercial one could put a Chick-fil-A on it (I sure hope we can get one here in Citrus County soon) and serve chicken sandwiches until the cows come home. But that won’t happen in Fort Myers, and that brings us to the second part of this complicated issue.

We are not sure how or why the city of Fort Myers chose to locate the sludge where they did and we are not going to speculate on that decision except to say if there is anything truly “toxic” concerning the sludge it’s the politics involved in determining its disposition. It seems somehow the people in the surrounding neighborhoods were not timely informed of the arsenic soil content being above Florida standards for residential communities and for years the city has not done anything to remediate those conditions and therein lays the proverbial rub. It has become a real NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue, or in my landfill nearby, etc.

We believe there are some pending lawsuits regarding the issue as well and that is why they do not want to “just keep it” even though they could by Florida standards employ several alternatives that would allow that to occur which would be less expensive. They choose instead to excavate it and recycle it through a company that has a facility in Citrus County.

And that brings us to the proposed plan at hand and our involvement. The proposed plan, which is still not finalized or approved by FDEP or Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), involves the following:

Excavate the material by the city of Fort Myers with the process being inspected by FDEP officials. The material would have to reach a low maximum moisture content (fairly dry) so there would be no risk of leaking of fluids before it is loaded onto covered and sealed trucks under the supervision and inspection of FDEP and FDOT.

* The trucks would then transport the material to the LaFargeHolcim facility in the northwest corner of Citrus County over a several-week period (time to be determined). The material would there be mixed 7–10 percent with limestone aggregate to make the clay-like material better suited for processing. This phase would also occur with inspections of FDEP to ensure code and permit compliance.

* The material would then be loaded on barges and shipped to the LaFargeHolcim plant in Alabama, where it would be kilned at 3000 degrees Fahrenheit and used as concrete substrate.

It will not be buried in our county landfill or anywhere else in our county, have contact with any of our water sources or residential developments or be in the county more than several months.

In fact, part of the proposed transportation plan is to avoid highly populated/congested areas as best as possible. We have suggested to FDEP and officials at LafargeHolcim, if plans are approved and the communities and county officials get comfortable accepting them, to consider traveling farther north on I-75 to Route 484 West to U.S. 41 South to County Road 488 west to U.S. 19 north to the processing plant which would avoid Homosassa, Inverness and Crystal River entirely. Again, no plans have been approved to date.

In my comments to the press and the Crystal River City Council, I spoke about those same proposed plans and the tests of the material that were performed to date. In my opinion, I felt comfortable that if the reports were true and FDEP verified the results and approved the plans, it would not pose a threat to the citizens or our environment.

I think the headlines took my words out of that context. Arsenic is hazardous, but that hazard of toxicity is concentration dependent and is well above any level indicated in any of the data we have available.

Yes, data can be fabricated and people can be dishonest, but it would be highly improbable for so many independent and reputable sources, which would risk their businesses and careers, to not report the truth. I have asked FDEP if they were going to request any additional testing. To date FDEP has not requested any further testing and has no current plans to do so.

I believe those are the true facts and I hope all of us can use them effectively in our decision-making regarding this issue of the Fort Myers sludge.

Author Hillary Mantel said, “It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour fears, fantasies and desires.”

President John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclination, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

It would have been politically expedient for me to simply say that we need to have FDEP look further into the situation and not allow any toxic waste to come into our county, which we have and which we won’t. However, I made a pledge to serve you boldly and courageously and that I will continue to do as long as you afford me the honor of being your representative.

Article last accessed here on October 12, 2018.