Watchdog Hammers Pollution Oversight
By MIKE SALINERO
TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Panhandle landfill with a long history of environmental violations is center stage in a controversy with a group of players as diverse as Alabama con men and high-level friends of Gov. Jeb Bush.
A watchdog group, in a report being distributed this week to state regulators and activists, says the landfill is a prime example of lax oversight by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.
State officials dispute the assessment. The report is based largely on government documents obtained by members of Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility under the state’s open public records act.
The DEP issued a permit Aug. 2, 2001, for a landfill near Panama City, Fla. The landfill was owned by Big Wheel Recycling of Alabama, whose directors were under federal indictment. They now are in prison for convictions on mail fraud, money laundering and conspiracy.
Jerry Phillips, director of Florida PEER, said the DEP’s failure to check the background of Big Wheel’s ownership is typical of what he considers the agency’s dereliction of duty when it came to the landfill. Though the ownership changed, the landfill has had a history of environmental permit violations under its current owners, Jimmy and Debbie Livingston of Panama City. DEP records in Pensacola show that high concentrations of aluminum have been found in groundwater under the landfill in several tests over consecutive years.
DEP documents also show that landfill employees have been caught crushing material containing asbestos, a violation of the landfill’s permit. Phillips said the asbestos violations would be enough to close the facility.
The DEP has sent the Livingstons one warning letter.
“They could have gone into court and gotten a temporary injunction, shutting it down until the contamination was remediated,” Phillips said. “At the very least they could have got a temporary injunction and got them to immediately comply. … Either way they’re playing Russian roulette with the public’s drinking water.”
Debbie Livingston, president of Aztec Environmental, the current operator of the landfill, declined to be interviewed.
Mary Jean Yon, director of the DEP’s western district, said the landfill is in compliance and that the Livingstons have responded to the warning. Yon said the groundwater contamination might be due to naturally occurring aluminum in the soil.
“As long as I’m seeing a willingness to respond to the issues … I’m not going to yank their permit,” Yon said.
Phillips, however, questioned whether the Livingstons are being protected because of their high-level political connections. William Harrison, a Panama City lawyer who served on transition teams for both President Bush and Gov. Bush, joined the Big Wheel board of directors Jan. 9, 2003, according to documents filed with the secretary of state’s office.
Another prominent Bay County Republican, Randall McElheney, joined the Big Wheel board the same day as Harrison. McElheney also served on Gov. Bush’s transition team.
Both men were on the landfill board with Dwight Faulk, a former director of Big Wheel Recycling of Alabama. Faulk is in prison on the federal fraud and money laundering charges.
Harrison and McElheney resigned from the landfill board July 10.
McElheney did not return a phone call for comment.
Harrison, in an interview last month, said he and Livingston are friends and attend the same church.
Harrison said he co-signed a loan with Livingston to help with his business. “He thought it would be a way to honor me, to put me on as an officer of the corporation. I was never a shareholder,” Harrison said. “All those debts have been paid off.” Harrison said he never has spoken to DEP officials about the landfill. In December 2002, a month before he joined the Big Wheel board, Harrison met with
Henry Hernandez, the acting manager of the DEP’s Panama City branch. Hernandez was bucking to be named permanent branch manager. He told a Bay County magazine, the Emerald Coast Insider that he was told by higher-ups to interview with Harrison, who held no government position. Hernandez got the job.
Hernandez referred requests by The Tampa Tribune for an interview to DEP spokeswoman Sally Cooey. Cooey said the conversation between Harrison and Hernandez was not an interview.
“Mr. Harrison came into the office, and they did talk,” Cooey said. “But that’s not unusual for an individual in the community to come in and schedule appointments with our administrator. … We’re a public service organization.” Harrison was out of town Monday and could not be reached.
Copyright (c) 2004 The Tribune Co.