Tampa Bay Sites Among Florida's Worst Polluters

Florida is home to many sites on the EPA Watch List and other sites with chronic air pollution problems.
Gardner Harshman complained to regulators about ash from the facility covering cars in the Mainlands community.
TAMPA (2011-11-7) -

A secret list of some of the nation's worst air polluters has been revealed, with seven chronic polluters right here in Florida. And four of those are in the Tampa Bay area.


One of them is in Gardner Harshman’s neighborhood in Pinellas County. He knew that living in the shadow of an incinerator and a huge mountain of trash could be - let's say a concern.

Then came that day last year when he walked outside his tidy home to see his neighborhood covered in white ash.

“I thought it had snowed,” he said. “White flecks all over my car. So I walked out in the neighborhood, and all the other cars were covered with it, too.”

Harshman lives in the Mainlands subdivision in Pinellas Park, barely a half mile from the Pinellas County Resource Recovery Facility. It's one of the nation's largest waste-to-energy generating plants. Harshman knows something about electricity - he retired after 30 years with Florida Power Corp. But he never saw a day like this.

"I have a maroon Honda you can see there, and there were white flecks all over it - as if it had snowed over it. See that?" he says. "And this is a close-up - see how much is all over it? He told me over at the plant, 'Well, we have to scrape it down to have it analyzed.' I don't think so."

“All those repairs have been completed and those issues are fixed,” said Kelsi Oswald, the waste-to-energy program manager for Pinellas County.

She says it's possible the "snow" in Harshman's neighborhood was ash from the trash pile.

“It could very well have resulted from wind blowing the dust from the landfill itself. It would not be from air emissions from combustion,” she said. "We don't have ash coming out of our stack, it's totally controlled. But the ash is captured and put in the landfill, and it's used for cover on the site. So if there was ash on his car, that would have likely been the source."

That's not the only problem at the plant. It's had a history of violations over the years. In 2010, state officials fined the facility $50,000 for excessive emissions.

The incinerator is one of seven sites included within the last two months on the EPA Facility Watch List. To make the list, a site had to be in violation of the Clean Air Act for at least nine months.

The six other Florida sites on the EPA's list are: Brevard County Central Disposal Facility in Cocoa; Naval Air Station Jacksonville; Eager Beaver Trailers in Lake Wales; the Miami-Dade County Resource Recovery Facility in Doral; Motiva Enterprises in Tampa; and Tampa Electric Company’s Big Bend Station.

The list was secret. The EPA only released it after the non-profit Center for Public Integrity and NPR filed a Freedom of Information Request. They've shared it with Trevor Aaronson of The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. He says one of the worst polluters is the oldest trash-to-energy incinerator in Florida. The Miami-Dade Resource Recovery Facility burns more than a million tons of garbage every year. That's enough to power 40,000 homes. But it has a long history of releasing highly-toxic substance dioxin.

“They've had persistent violations, over and over, mainly due to the release of dioxin into the air - the burning of material that shouldn't be burned - inadequate filters for keeping that off-gassing from going out,” he said.

The plant's operators were handed a record fine several years ago - half a million dollars. The plant has since switched management companies, but they're still on the EPA's Watch List.

Another chronic offender, Aaronson says, is the Big Bend coal-burning power plant on Tampa Bay. It's been cited 10 times in the past five years.

Cherie Jacobs, a spokesperson for TECO, told Aaronson that all of Big Bend Station’s violations to date have been resolved and are under review by the EPA.

“The issues were of very short duration,” Jacobs said.

The Pinellas resource recovery plant has been on the list several times, before finally being removed in September. Oswald says the plant has three boilers that are capable of burning 1,000 tons of garbage a day. And the air pollution problems happened when those boilers were offline being repaired.

Part of the problem, Aaronson says, is these plants show up on the list, vow to clean up - and then end up on the list again.

“The question that's raised in a situation like this is whether facilities like Miami-Dade and the Big Bend power plant - whether that's just the cost of doing business,” he said.

“You take your fines, and you take your consent orders, then you just keep producing - and polluting - at the levels you always have.”

Aaronson says that regulators didn't give any more scrutiny to the chronic polluters on the list. State budget cuts mean there are fewer and fewer inspectors to go around.

That does little to ease the minds of plant neighbors like Gardner Harshman. He says he's only called regulators once for the "snow" episode, but it's not the only time he's had a problem with bad air coming from nearby.

"I don't call every time there's a problem," he said. "I'm a cranky old man, but I'm not that cranky."

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