Update at end of story.
People who live in the Wedgewood area are starting to gain some traction in their effort to get local, state, and federal officials to do something about the pollution coming from nearby borrow pits and landfills. The Escambia County Commission is now considering a six-month moratorium on the permitting and re-permitting of borrow pits and landfills in the Wedgewood area. The move toward a moratorium follows the July 22 tour of some of the facilities by Commission Chairman Lumon May and State Representative Mike Hill.
A few days before, I visited the community to speak with some of the residents to get a better sense of their concerns about how pollution from the landfills is affecting their health, as well as the future of their neighborhoods.
Back in the late 1950s, the Wedgewood, Olive Heights, and Rolling Hills communities reflected quite a different picture than what you see there today.
Aaron Wiley, a 65 year old retired postal worker, remembers what the neighborhood was like when he first moved there back in 1958.
“Before, it was a pristine neighborhood with big Oak trees, tall pines, creeks that ran clear water,” says Wiley. “We used to fish, swim, and all that out in the woods. But come up to date and I see a marked difference.”
Fast forward to present day and you will find these neighborhoods are surrounded by several Construction & Demolition debris (C & D) pits, along with ‘borrow pits’ which are used for mining dirt, sand, and clay.
These pits are supposed to be free of odor, level with the ground, and – depending on the type of pit - should be between 100 and 500 feet away from private property. But Wiley and other residents say that these are three of the biggest problems they have with the pits, some of which they believe are accepting types of debris in violation of their permits.
“The pits that we have here are unlined for the material that they’re bringing in,” says Wiley. “They’re bringing in toxic waste. So our ground water is contaminated and the soil is contaminated and the air is contaminated.”
Brandy Smith, external affairs manager for the Department of Environmental Protection, stated in an email that groundwater monitoring data from that area does show elevated levels of arsenic, boron, ammonia, and iron. There are also concerns related to iron, copper, lead, and mercury found in the surface water.
However, as many of the residents’ concerns pertain to the drinking water, Smith points out that their community get its drinking water from the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority potable water system and all of their data shows that this water does meet safe drinking water standards.
In addition to the pollution, residents are concerned about violation of visibility regulations. For instance, debris from the Rolling Hills C & D landfill is clearly visible from the nearby Wedgewood Community and from many of the homes in the area.
LaFanette Soles-Woods is a 56 year old Air Force retiree and long-time resident of the area. As she takes me on a driving tour of the neighborhood, she points to the unsightly debris at the Rolling Hills landfill and also notes the terrible odor coming from it.
“It smells like an open cesspool,” says Soles-Woods. “It smells like somebody’s cesspool has overflowed and nobody’s taking care of it. That’s what it smells like.”
The issue of smell aside, Soles-Woods says residents are concerned about the long-term impact of contaminants from the pits on their own health as well as that of their children’s.
“That’s what my concern is, the children. They have a long time to try to live but with all of this in the air and in the water, they can’t live like that.”
Gloria Horning, a local activist, caught wind of what was going on with these landfills back in June. Since then she has stepped up to help mobilize the Wedgewood area residents, now a united group of about 200.
“It is a toxic site,” says Horning. “These people need to be moved and they need to be moved quickly.”
She says that despite numerous citations for various violations over the years, ultimately nothing has been done to stop certain activities at the pits and landfills, until now, when the people are finally starting to take a stand.
“They were cited for lack of water monitoring, for lack of air monitoring, for lack of soil monitoring, for lack of keeping the dust down. I mean, 17! And these are violations that have a direct health impact on all living things.”
In addition to the odor and pollution, neighbors say there are the trucks coming in and out of the sites at all hours of the day, seven days a week.
“Those trucks are driving down a residential road,” says Horning. “There are children playing. There are cars coming in and out because there are schools over there. There is a community center over there.”
During the recent tour with Escambia County Commission Chairman Lumon May and State Representative Mike Hill, Horning confronted Scott Miller, one of the owners of the Rolling Hills C & D landfill, on allegations of their trucks operating after hours and on weekends, when operations are apparently supposed to cease.
Miller explained the rules regarding landfill operations, saying they do not include dealing with debris already on the premises.
“But they have to give us the latitude to cover [the debris already on site] because during times when we get in a lot of debris during the week, because we can’t operate at night,” said Miller.
Horning and other residents counteracted this, saying that the landfill does in fact operate at night.
“We do not operate past sun down,” said Miller in response to the accusations. “I can show you the payroll records. We do not operate past 5 o clock.”
At the end of last week’s tour, Commissioner May pledged to residents to do what he can to clean up the pollution and announced that he has instructed county staff to work aggressively on testing for soil, water, and air quality.
Just hours after the tour’s conclusion, a health alert was issued in regards to elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide found in the air near the Rolling Hills landfill.
The County Commission met recently and is now considering a six-month moratorium on the permitting of borrow pits and landfills in the Wedgewood area. A second public hearing on the moratorium is scheduled be held on August 21.
In addition to cleaning up the pollution, resident Aaron Wiley says they want assistance with their medical bills, compensation for pain and suffering, and a new place to live. He says they want to be relocated to an area that is more conducive to the American Dream.
“This was the American Dream for a lot of the residents out here,” says Wiley. “Now their American dream has turned into a nightmare.”
As part of recent efforts to take matters into their own hands, residents have formed a group called Justice Escambia. Also, they’ve met with former Circuit Judge Kenneth Williams and other attorneys in regards to legal counsel and possible pursuit of a class action suit.
UPDATE: Today, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection took action by revoking the permit for the Rolling Hills Construction and Demolition Debris Disposal Facility and will file a lawsuit in Escambia County. A copy of the Notice and Order of Revocation can be found here.
The Notice and Order of Revocation issued to South Palafox Properties, LLC alleges that compliance issues at the Rolling Hills Construction and Demolition Debris Disposal Facility located at 6990 Rolling Hills Road in Pensacola constitute violations of Florida law. Such compliance issues include the facility operating outside permitted dimensions and failure to implement the Remedial Action Plan approval order issued by the department on July 3, 2013.
“We are committed to taking any and all regulatory and enforcement action available to us to ensure the ongoing compliance issues at the Rolling Hills Construction and Demolition Debris Facility are addressed,” said Northwest District Director Shawn Hamilton. “We have worked diligently with the facility in an effort to address the issues, and despite our attempts, the noncompliance continues. Revoking the permit and filing the lawsuit will prevent further violations and compel the facility to address compliance issues and implement corrective actions as required.”
The department will file a lawsuit against South Palafox Properties, LLC seeking a judgment that will order the company to resolve compliance violations and comply with department orders.