Osceola County government is moving forward with independent groundwater testing outside a rural landfill after weeks of protests over coal ash dumping at the site sparked health and environmental concerns from residents.
A ‘medium to large’ victory
The approved resolution sets aside up to $200,000 for third-party ground and surface water testing in and around the JED Solid Waste Facility east of St. Cloud. Currently, the landfill’s private owner, Waste Connections, is responsible for water monitoring and sampling twice a year. The company then passes those results off to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to remain in compliance.
But that doesn't seem to be enough for some residents, who have expressed public concerns about toxins from recently arrived coal ash leaching into nearby resources – especially outside the landfill where testing isn’t legally required.
Local environmentalist and St. Cloud resident Valerie Anderson saw the new resolution as a “medium to large victory” for coal ash protesters.
Anderson said that independent tests add an extra layer of protection and assurance for residents worried about the double liner system failing or accidents contaminating nearby drinking wells owned by rural residents.
“Though they’re not legally required to do this, it’s the right thing to do,” said Anderson, who was one of more than a dozen citizens who spoke about coal ash dumping Monday.
“Even though you can’t make everyone happy, the county has at least taken the position that it has to protect its citizens and the groundwater," she said.
Puerto Rico’s toxic past with coal ash
According to public complaints, many residents’ fears and concerns are spurred by recent pollution and aquifer contamination in Puerto Rico. Levels of arsenic, selenium and lithium exceeding EPA safe standards were detected in 2017 and 2018 outside the same coal-based power plant in Puerto Rico now exporting an unlimited amount of the material to Osceola County.
The power plant is operated by Applied Energy Systems (AES), a multinational company that’s been at the heart of numerous protests in recent years over disposal and handling methods of coal ash and a fly ash byproduct called Agremax.
Although safety standards are higher in Florida and at the double-lined JED landfill site, residents are still calling for immediate action to mitigate concerns.
County sets aside $200k for a consultant
The county is likely to tap the engineering firm Jones Edmunds and Associates to do the independent testing. According to the county’s Public Works Director Danielle Slaterpryce, Jones Edmunds is the likely choice because the consultants are experienced but have no existing ties or conflicts of interests with Waste Connections.
“They’re a very well-respected firm in solid waste issues,” Slaterpryce said.
Fee estimates for initial site inspections and protocol is estimated at $15,000, but the resolution allows the county to use up to $200,000 to complete additional ongoing monitoring and sampling as deemed appropriate by the company. Ground and surface water monitoring would cost about $50,000 to $55,000 per event, Slaterpryce said.
The item was approved unanimously – with an opportunity for the county to exit the agreement later If desired.
Letter from landfill ‘kind of an insult,’ says Choudhry
Independent testing was first proposed May 20 by County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry. It was one of three proposals made by Choudhry, who has said she no longer supports her April 1 vote cast alongside two other elected officials. That vote amended a previous contract with Waste Connections and now allows the company to import coal ash from out of state. It gave Waste Connections a green light to dump unlimited amounts of the material from Puerto Rico between now and the end of the year.
The item was added to the agenda less than two hours before the April 1 meeting, with no public comment or discussion from commissioners prior to approval.
Public backlash over the deal erupted in May following media reports. In response, County Commission Chairwoman Cheryl Grieb sent a letter to Waste Connections requesting them to stop shipments immediately. The company replied a week later stating shipments will continue but pushed the deadline from Dec. 31 to Oct. 1.
However, the landfill contract has not changed to reflect the Oct. 1 date.
Choudhry said Waste Connections’ May 22 letter “wasn’t good enough,” and called it “kind of an insult.”
“I thought they would be better partners,” she said. “I think they can do more.”
She called for the county to send a more forceful letter demanding shipments stop immediately.
The motion was seconded by Grieb, who disclosed she has met with Waste Connections privately and asked them to stop.
“There’s a lot more moving pieces than even I realized,” Grieb said, adding that other contractual obligations bar Waste Connections from stopping shipments.
Commissioner Fred Hawkins Jr., who abstained from the April 1 vote because his family receives royalty payments from the landfill, suggested FDEP come to a meeting and address residents’ concerns.
“That’s the letter I would recommend you send,” he said.
The board voted to send another letter to Waste Connections asking the company to stop.
Many residents left unsatisfied
Boos and grumbles from the audience interrupted commissioners’ comments at Monday’s meeting.
Some saw the gestures as too little too late to correct a perceived lack of transparency.
“We do not have faith in you, and we’re looking to you to give us an answer, that next concrete step,” said Kissimmee resident Debra Gardner.
Holopaw resident Mikala Wells said she still worries about what possible contamination could mean for her family’s drinking water and the health of her children.
She called for local leaders to terminate the contract with Waste Connections, no matter the cost.
“We all know any contract can be cancelled,” she said. “There may be consequences. But those consequences you are not willing to face.”
She also asked why four non-profits who normally receive money from Waste Connections were cut out of the coal ash contract, a potential loss of upwards of $100,000 to groups benefiting education and nearby communities.