Council readies for court: St. Cloud will hire attorney to challenge Waste Connections

St. Cloud resident Hughlett Crumpler speaks to the St. Cloud City Council during an Aug. 22 meeting.

Despite a likely lawsuit, the St. Cloud City Council last week voted to maintain its June decision to cancel the city’s leachate contract with nearby landfill owner Waste Connections.

The city signed the 20-year contract to accept the liquid run-off from the mountains of garbage at JED Landfill, known as leachate, in 2009.

About 13,000 gallons of leachate had been entering the city’s wastewater treatment system daily until June. That’s when the City Council voted to stop the practice amid concerns about tons of coal ash from Puerto Rico entering the landfill and its subsequent effect on the leachate.

JED landfill has taken coal ash since it opened in 2004, but began taking in imported coal ash from Puerto Rico earlier this year after approval from the Osceola County Commission.

The commission hammered out a deal with Waste Connections earlier this month to reduce the amount of coal ash from Puerto Rico coming into the landfill from 200,000 tons to 160,000.

Since the City Council’s June decision, City Attorney Dan Mantzaris and City Manager Bill Sturgeon have met with Waste Connections officials twice to discuss the contract and potential fallout from its early cancellation.

“At this stage, Waste Connections obviously believes that they have contractual rights that they have the right to enforce. So it’s very likely there’s going to be a lawsuit filed against the city based on that,” City Attorney Dan Mantzaris said at the Aug. 22 meeting.

The company has estimated its daily losses at around $1,300, Mantzaris told the council. That equates to $4.7 million over the remainder of the contract.

In an Aug. 2 letter, the company cited the testing it had done, “was inspected by the DEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) and thus proves the material to be non-toxic and at no-risk to the public health.”

Waste Connections said the company would “settle all claims against St. Cloud” if the city reinstates the leachate contract and reimburses the company $68,000 for the additional costs to dispose of the garbage byproduct and attorney fees, according to the letter. Waste Connection’s offer also requires that St. Cloud accept two additional loads of leachate each week on top what’s allowed in the original contract, and that the contract is extended to 2039.

The company also called on the city and/or the council to “make appropriate statements” saying that “the leachate is not hazardous.”

The council voted to retain legal counsel to fight Waste Connections’ demands and to hire environmental consultants to assess concerns about the leachate possibly affecting city water.

Mantzaris said he and Sturgeon thought the Waste Connections offer was reasonable.

The city’s water consultant Brian Wheeler told the council that the city routinely tests samples from the wastewater treatment plant and has found no irregularities. He said the city’s reclaimed water meets the state’s standards for drinking water.

Mantzaris said the contract only can be terminated if the city makes a “reasonable decision” that the leachate is not suitable for the wastewater treatment system.

But that’s a hard sell in court because the waste company ostensibly operates within state and federal guidelines, he said.

But council members didn’t seem convinced.

“We are going to get somebody that’s going to come here to test all this leachate. We’re going to test all of the wells. Anything that we’re drinking, non potable or potable, that we can get tested, we need to have it tested,” said Council Member Chuck Cooper. “I want honesty and transparency.”

Cooper also asked if the city could ask its lobbyists in Tallahassee to bring this issue before governor.  

Council Member Dave Askew said the leachate contract termination in St. Cloud is part of a bigger issue having to do with how politicians determine state and federal environmental regulations.

“This is bigger than us,” Askew said. “I really want to turn on the faucet and have clean water and think everybody else here does.”

The audience erupted in applause after the vote.

Residents of St. Cloud and Holopaw - the small town where the landfill is located - along with members of the grassroots group No Ash in Our Trash! Osceola Fights Back! addressed the council before the vote during the public comment section of the meeting.

“Your job, to me, is not a hard job. Because you should be guided very simply by what’s in the best for the citizens of St. Cloud. All the citizens all the time,” Hughlett Crumpler told the council.

The city made about $23,500 annually in 2017 and 2018 from its contract with Waste Connections.

In June, Mantzaris told the council that trash collection rates would likely go up if the contract were cancelled because the company has given the city discounted rates on disposal fees since 2009 as part of the deal.