St. Cloud will no longer accept a toxic liquid by-product from a nearby landfill after residents spoke out Thursday night.
But costly legal consequences may now loom for the city.
Coal ash has dominated conversation at local government meetings in Osceola County for weeks now. Residents and protesters began speaking out in early May after news broke that JED Solid Waste Facility, a private landfill in rural Osceola County, would become the new home for hundreds of thousands of tons of coal ash from Puerto Rico.
JED landfill is outside St. Cloud city limits, but on Thursday, the city weighed in on how coal ash at the landfill might affect St. Cloud’s wastewater management facility.
The concern is that toxic heavy metals and other impurities found in coal ash may damage the city-owned wastewater plant. JED landfill has taken coal ash since it opened in 2004, according to officials, but never this much at one time.
With upward of 200,000 tons of coal ash or more expected to arrive at the JED landfill, residents urged St. Cloud politicians to cancel the 20-year wastewater contract just to be safe.
“Here we have a chance to think about what could happen and what could go wrong in advance,” said St. Cloud resident Hughlett Crumpler. “Let’s be careful with our health, the environment and do what we can today.”
What is leachate?
Since 2009, the city has accepted a substance known as leachate from the JED landfill.
Leachate is the coffee-colored garbage juice that percolates through trash when it rains. The substance is collected in pools and eventually trucked to a St. Cloud transfer station before heading to the wastewater plant for treatment.
There, leachate mixes with sewage and runs through a filtering system to become reclaimed water (non-drinking water) or sludge.
About 13,000 gallons of leachate enters the St. Cloud-owned wastewater management facility every day, according to the city’s public works director.
Legal costs and contract concerns
St. Cloud City Council members discussed the leachate contract two weeks ago, with members Linette Matheny and Chuck Cooper backing citizens on canceling the agreement.
But legal costs, litigation and damages gave other members pause for thought. City Attorney Dan Mantzaris was tasked with exploring possible legal ramifications before the board made a decision.
Since the 20-year contract is only halfway over, St. Cloud would lose out on money it receives from Waste Connections each year – about $13,000 – along with damage costs, city officials said. That last figure would reflect how much Waste Connections will need to pay to find a new facility to accept leachate and transport it, or the cost of finding some other alternative disposal method.
More testing and waiting it out
Other options were explored, including increasing current independent leachate testing from twice a year to once a month.
Waiting was another option. If the city could prove that landfill leachate had a negative effect on its wastewater facility, St. Cloud could cancel the agreement without facing a potentially costly legal battle with a major corporation.
City officials noted that the JED landfill is currently in compliance with all Florida Department of Environmental Protection regulations.
But residents favored immediate action – no matter what the cost.
“Put your people and the residents of St. Cloud first, not your pockets,” said resident Debbie Moore.
City cancels contracts – but what about higher trash rates?
After fellow board members weighed options, Matheny stuck to her original stance from two weeks ago – cancel the contract.
“I don’t know why we’re going to go through such heroic measures to try and prove this is safe,” she said. “In an abundance of caution – let’s cancel the contract, protect our water resources and the citizens of St. Cloud.”
City Manager Bill Sturgeon also said he was “very concerned” about the city accepting leachate from the landfill in light of the coal ash being dumped there.
Before the final vote, it was noted that trash collection rates may take a hit. According to Mantzaris, the landfill’s owner gave the city major discounts on gate and sludge disposal fees in 2009 after St. Cloud agreed to begin accepting leachate.
“At the very least, those rates would be dramatically changed, and the city would end up paying more money,” he said.
Despite some risk, St. Cloud City Council unanimously voted to dissolve the leachate contract between the city and Waste Connections.
As protesters celebrated, Mayor Nathan Blackwell made a final comment.
“I hope you’ll be just as enthusiastic if they come back and increase our rates,” he said. “I hope you’ll come back and cheer for that, too.”
What comes next?
St. Cloud native Lindsay Pippins said Friday that she’s grateful for the vote – and doesn’t mind the cost.
“Although they made themselves somewhat vulnerable, they still did what was right and their decision will be remembered,” she said. “I know my family will be forever thankful for taking the step in the right direction to protect everyone.”
St. Cloud staff did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon about the contract termination and what comes next.
On Friday – one day after the decision to stop accepting leachate - the Puerto Rican Center for Investigative Journalism reported that another shipment of 20,000 tons of coal ash headed for Osceola County departed the island in route to Manatee Bay port near Tampa.