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A heap of trouble

Allowing Pinellas County's landfill to pile garbage 150 feet high may be the cheapest solution to disposal problem, but is it the best?

A Times Editorial
Published October 5, 2006


Since splitting away from Hillsborough nearly a century ago, Pinellas County has managed to disfigure itself with surprising regularity. Ribbons of concrete and rows of buildings now cover most every inch of the peninsula, dirt was dumped into bays to create finger fills for more development, fresh groundwater was pumped so much that it comes up with salt, sewage has been poured into the bay and injected into the ground.

Given a history of such expedience, the County Commission owes future residents a more considered judgment on whether to place a mountain of garbage at the front door. Heaping waste higher at Bridgeway Acres landfill, just west of Interstate 275 as motorists enter Pinellas from the Howard Frankland Bridge, almost certainly will save money and delay the inevitable search for alternatives. But is money all that matters here?

As Raymond James & Associates senior vice president Elliot Stern politely states: "It will be counter to the ambience of the community."

Make no mistake. The dilemma Pinellas faces is genuine. Its garbage incinerator can't burn everything, and the waste ash needs disposal too. The landfill, which abuts the incinerator, is filling up and there is nowhere else to dump. So county solid waste officials have decided the logical move is up. Way up.

Under a state permit application filed 16 months ago, Pinellas asked to heap garbage 150 feet high over roughly 350 acres. These are no ordinary dimensions. This would be a mountainous plateau with steep sides, looking much like a phosphogypsum waste stack, rising taller than any land mass in the county. It would be more than twice the height of the highest portion of the current landfill, and nearly four times taller than the closed Toytown landfill that rests across I-275.

County solid waste officials, to their credit, are doing their job of looking to the future. Bridgeway is expected to top out by 2040, and they estimate the new height would add another three decades. They want to forestall, for as long as possible, the day when Pinellas might have to truck its waste elsewhere.

Their arguments are compelling, but what is disconcerting is the lack of public interaction and commission debate. The possibility of increased height was mentioned when commissioners voted in 2003 and 2004 to allow new homes to be built next to the site. But the commission never voted formally to submit the permit application and, as a result, neighboring businesses such as Raymond James were forced to take their concerns to Tallahassee.

No one should fault the goals of the county's solid waste managers, who have run the landfill and incinerator with a remarkably clean record. But these are the kinds of decisions that leave an indelible mark, and Pinellas has learned from the past that the cheapest and easiest path is not always the wisest.