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Treatment plant flap hits wall

The county and Resources Conservation Co. get ready for arbitration over a treatment plant issue.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


Pasco County and the company it hired to build a leachate treatment plant agree on one thing: The county owes the company $575,712.33.

But that's where the harmony ends.

The county says Resources Conservation Co. owes it $460,000, the amount the county paid to haul the contaminated water away -- plus environmental penalties the county paid because the treatment facility failed. After more than a year of negotiations, the county and the company have reached an impasse. Their dispute is now headed for binding arbitration.

"We've been sending letters back and forth," County Attorney Robert Sumner said.

"(Now) the contract calls for binding arbitration rather than litigation in the courts."

The problem dates back to 1991, when the county opened its incinerator in Shady Hills. The incinerator burns garbage, producing ash contaminated with salts and dangerous metals. The ash is placed in dumps and rain falling on the dumps creates contaminated water called leachate.

Initially, the county piped leachate to a nearby wastewater treatment plant. There, it was mixed in with regular sewage and treated, then sent to ponds, where it seeped into the earth.

The process removed most of the dangerous metals, and the hope was that the salts would be diluted enough to meet federal and state ground- and drinking-water standards. It had worked elsewhere.

But as early as 1991, the year the incinerator opened, test wells showed that salts were beginning to contaminate the aquifer.

In 1996, the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered the county to quit sending the leachate to the wastewater treatment plant. (It also ordered the county to come up with a plan to suck from the aquifer the huge salty blob of water, which was migrating slowly to the northwest and caused the county to replace two fouled private wells.)

County officials proposed to build a special leachate management plant that would evaporate the water, leaving behind a solid mass of salts and metals, which could be easily disposed of.

That's when Resources Conservation Co. came into the picture.

The leachate treatment plant the company built came on line in May 1997 and was hailed in a trade publication as a cutting edge solution to a tricky problem.

But the $4-million plant, which was supposed to process 35,000 gallons of leachate a day, worked properly for only one month. It seldom worked until sometime after May 1998.

"It's working perfectly, that's not a problem now," Sumner said Friday. But the county had to pay to haul the leachate away during the periods when the treatment plant wasn't working.

And before the county hands over its final payment to Resources Conservation Co., it wants to be reimbursed what it is owed, county officials said.

An attorney for Resources Conservation Co. did not return several phone calls last week. But in the company's demand for arbitration, it said Pasco County waived its right to the type of damages it is seeking when it signed the contract.

Sumner said the two sides now must select an arbitrator, or agree to go through mediation, which is not binding. Sumner and Assistant County Attorney Sidney Kilgore say they think a settlement still may be possible.

As for the county's plan to clean up the salty contamination, county officials say they are waiting for the green light from DEP.

Pete Burghardt, the DEP official overseeing the cleanup plan, says the salty blob of water has migrated a little, although DEP doesn't consider that movement a threat to the aquifer. Burghardt said technical workers are still are reviewing the plan and anticipate approving it in the next couple of months.

"The ball is in our court."

- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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