Local government officials addressed residents’ questions and concerns Monday about 650 million pounds of coal ash headed to Osceola County from Puerto Rico.
But residents like Loret Thatcher, who lives less than 10 miles from the landfill, said more information should have been provided to the public prior to approval.
“Because of the rushed, last-minute addendum, people were not given an opportunity to raise questions and express how it would impact them,” said Thatcher during Monday’s Osceola County Commission meeting.
Leading up to this, Waste Connections – the private owner and operator of the JED Solid Waste Facility near Thatcher’s home – sought a contract amendment with Osceola County April 1 that allows the company to import 65,000 to 325,000 tons of coal ash from Puerto Rico between now and Dec. 31.
The request was approved unanimously, without discussion from board members.
Thatcher wanted to know how the shipment might affect the life expectancy of premium landfill space.
“Is this in the best interest of Florida as a whole, since landfill space is precious, and you are now using it for waste from outside the state?” she asked.
She mentioned extreme flooding that impacted her community following Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Thatcher noted that the county was not aware of the tonnage of coal ash being imported when the measure was first approved.
Increased traffic from trucks delivering ash to the landfill also concerned Thatcher.
“We live daily with the window-shaking, earth-jarring rumblings of huge trucks racing through our neighborhood and yes, occasionally, road spills of debris,” she said.
County Commissioner Fred Hawkins Jr. – whose district includes the JED landfill – addressed some of Thatcher’s concerns.
“Coal ash can be toxic and it can be hazardous,” he said. “But you should know that nothing toxic or hazardous can go into this landfill.”
Hawkins is correct; JED is not permitted to accept hazardous waste. Its permit does, however, allow it to accept coal ash, and it has done so for years. The shipment’s size and out-of-state status is what makes it unusual.
“It is tested at the site of origin before it is ever transported to the disposal facility to make sure it’s not toxic or hazardous,” Hawkins added.
He did not publicly address Thacker’s concerns about the effect a hurricane or extreme flooding might have on the landfill.
Waste Connections was not the first pick for this contract, according to Hawkins. Waste Management, a rival firm, had initially won the bid but later lost the contract due to some kind of default, Hawkins added.
The ship of coal ash was already “on its way,” Hawkins said, hence the last-minute added item and county approval April 1.
“It was very rushed, I do know that,” Hawkins said after the meeting.
When the 200-acre JED landfill opened in 2004, officials said it had a 30-year life capacity. According to Waste Connections Division Vice President Damien Ribald, JED underwent at least two major expansions since then – though he declined to say how many acres have been added.
Hawkins – who has over 20 years of experience in the solid waste industry - said he expects the landfill to function for generations.
“It’s not up to the county to tell them how much they should take in,” Hawkins said, noting environmental regulations the landfill must adhere to.
But why is Waste Connections importing ash from Puerto Rico?
Hawkins called it a humanitarian move.
“Puerto Rico is an island that cannot properly dispose of this right now,” he said. “It has to go somewhere.”
Two years ago, the governor of Puerto Rico banned any coal ash dumping at island landfills after multiple protests erupted over pollution caused by lax handling and disposal methods. In April, the governor signed another law that will completely phase out coal-based energy production by 2028.
The EPA has acknowledged for years that the island’s budget crisis makes it difficult for local government to handle its escalating garbage problem. The municipalities there “have always had limited funds to implement the environmental and engineering controls required to improve, and ultimately close” subpar landfills, stated a September 2016 EPA fact sheet.
It is unclear how much money Waste Connections made from the deal because the company refused to comply with an Osceola News-Gazette records request last month.
Both Hawkins and County Manager Don Fisher said the contract only permits Waste Connections to import coal ash until Dec. 31.
But after the meeting, Hawkins acknowledged that the company could simply ask for an extension and get approval with a majority vote from county commissioners.
Hawkins encouraged concerned residents to call the local Florida Department of Environmental Protection office with any questions. The office phone number is 407-897-4100.
“We would never allow anything to come in that would harm our citizens,” he said.