The residents of Wedgewood are upset. They are tired of being sick. They are tired of seeing their loved ones and neighbors die of cancer, renal failure and other illnesses. They are tired of living under the shadow of a 130-foot mound of debris with its dust and stench that permeate the neighborhood.
Those emotions bubbled to the surface on June 3 during a public forum at the meeting of the Escambia County Commission. The board was scheduled to hold a public forum on renewing the permit for a construction and debris landfill owned by Waste Management on nearby Longleaf Drive. Wedgewood families used that opportunity to make their case for the commission to do something about the Rolling Hills C&D Recycling Center, where the mound of debris sits.
Gulf Coast Grading and Paving originally permitted the Rolling Hills landfill in 1990. In 2007, South Palafox Properties, LLC purchased the property with loans from First National Bank of Florida and Jamestown Gaming, LLC of Hammond, Louisiana. According to its website, rollinghillscd.com, Charlie Davidson is the director of operations and Scott Miller, first cousin of State Sen. Greg Evers, is the liaison with county and political officials.
Wedgewood is a neighborhood off of Highway 29 behind Bob Tyler Toyota. The predominantly African-American subdivision is nestled between the Marcus Point development and Interstate-10 and surrounded by landfills and sand pits. Pinestead Road borders the Rolling Hills C&D Recycling Facility.
“Wedgewood is historically significant to the African-Americans because it was the first black middle-class neighborhood,” explained Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May, who represents that area. “It was where black families moved when they got good paying jobs and got out of the public housing projects.”
Lost Quality Of Life
On June 16, the Independent News met with a dozen residents of the Wedgewood community at the Marie K. Young Community Center. The center was built by the county for $6.2 million on the site of the old Wedgewood Middle School and abuts the Rolling Hills facility. The residents were eager to tell their stories.
Wanda Shakir’s family moved to Wedgewood in the 1960s when she was eight. They were either the eighth or ninth family in the subdivision, living on the corner of Dunbar Street and Pinestead Road, according to Shakir.
“There were no problems when we were coming up,” she told the Independent News. “This was a good neighborhood.”
In 2005, she and her husband moved back to her family home to take care of her mother and father who were ill. Both have since passed.
“When I moved back, my mother developed pancreatic cancer,” she said. “She had never smoked or drank a day in her life.”
She is worried about her husband, Ronnie, who has loved spending time outside in their yard, which is across the street from the Rolling Hills facility.
“Since he moved back here, my husband has developed a lot of health problems,” she said, adding that he has had a heart attack. “When we visit the doctor, he always says, ‘I’m surprised to see you’re here’—that means still here.”
Ronnie Shakir has lately had respiratory problems. “I always work in the yard, but it’s gotten so lately where I can’t even stay out in the yard because of the scent and the dust.”
He said that over the past 18 months he has battled shortness of breath. His wife said, “He wheezes. I have to make him rollover at night to be able to breathe. It’s really, really bad.”
The Shakirs believe the dust coming off the Rolling Hills facility may be the culprit. Their car stays covered with dust and the dust also infiltrates their home.
“I’m a clean fanatic,” Mrs. Shakir said. “I can wipe down my home at 8 o’clock in the morning, go back at 9:30 and there’s dust back again.”
Mr. Shakir said, “To me, it just gotten real bad in the past year. When the mound was lower, it didn’t affect the neighborhood as much. Now the dust just covers everything.”
Rev. James Howard lives on Pinestead Road, across the street from the Shakirs. He too has battled the dust, offensive odor and health issues. He moved to Wedgewood in 1971.
He said that he was in good health in 1999 when he retired from BellSouth but has since had kidney, heart and respiratory problems.
“Some way, some how for the last two months, I’ve been just coughing,” he said. “No matter what the doctor gave me, the coughing just weighed right through it. Finally he gave me some super Z-pac. It kind of slowed it down, but as soon as I finished taking it, it all came back.”
Howard said the dust and foul smell come off the Rolling Hills property in waves. “I was looking down the street last week and there was just a dark cloud coming off the dump,” he said. “Plus the offensive odor that they have, it stinks. You can stand in the yard and it’s like a slow wave and your eyes start burning.”
Two doors down, Charles Sapp, who has lived in the area for almost 40 years, also complained of his eyes burning after being outdoors. “My wife and daughter are constantly having headaches,” he said. “She would be here tonight but her head was hurting so she couldn’t come. They don’t want to be outside very long because of the condition of the air and the dust in this community.”
One block further east on Pinestead Road, Jesse Walker has suffered from the dust and odor, but he also expressed concerns over the drinking water, pointing out the number of people in Wedgewood who have died from kidney failure.
“My mother on Wenowah (also in the Wedgewood neighborhood) had dialysis problems,” he said. “Four people have died on this block alone.”
He blamed the landfills. “They have completely surrounded our whole neighborhood with dumps,” Rev. Howard said. “Nobody should approve that many dumps around anybody. Everybody’s property values are going down.”
World War II and Korean War veteran Willie Lawrence echoed the concerns of his neighbors. He talked about what Wedgewood was like when he moved there 43 years ago.
“When we first moved out here, it was nothing like it is now,” Lawrence said. “The air was fresh. No one had sinus problems or respiratory problems, but since they had this dust out here, it seems like everyone has come down with respiratory problems.”
He said when South Palafox Properties bought the facility they talked about putting an industrial park on the property. “You can see how far they have gotten. All they have is a three-story mound of trash, “ Lawrence said. “They are hurting our community. They are lowering the prices on our homes. Pretty soon our homes won’t be valued for nothing much.”
Fellow veteran LaFanette Soles-Woods has had one health issue after another since moving back to Wedgewood in 1995. She is a 12-year survivor of breast cancer and has had triple-bypass surgery. Recently she was diagnosed with coronary artery disease.
She, too, believes the landfills may be the problem. “We don’t need these pits here,” Soles-Wood said. “It’s killing us. It really is [that] they are killing us.”
Linda Gulley is on the community board for the Marie Young Community Center. She has complained about the odor and the dust and is afraid to let her grandchildren play in the park behind the center.
“As I come back and forth to the center, I tend to get headaches. The odor is so bad that when I come into the building I put something over my face,” she said. “When you stand out in the parking lot talking to someone, I get a real bad headache. I’ve had a cough. My doctor has sent me to specialists but I continue to cough. I was not having those problems before coming over here.”
Larry Williams may have been the youngest resident in the room. He is attending Florida A&M University and in the process of moving back to the neighborhood where he grew up.
“I am Wedgewood. I grew up out here,” Williams said. “When I saw the mound, I didn’t believe it. We talk [in school] about how they dump toxins in the poorer neighborhoods and how it creates an environmental injustice.”
He longs for the Wedgewood of his childhood. “The water was fresh, it was clean,” Williams said. “The air that they are talking about—Oh, man, it’s a shame before God that they are trying to do this to Wedgewood.”
Williams pointed out that experts can identify the health issues Wedgewood residents have and determine the rate at which people are suffering from cancer, kidney and respiratory issues. The water and air can be tested.
“It’s not right that we have to be the ones that have got to prove that we have a problem,” he said. “Do the science and produce the results.”
Lynch Mob Mentality
Scott Miller, one of the owners of Rolling Hills, defended his operations. “I know what kind of facility I run, the DEP knows what kind of facility I run and the county does, too,” he told the Independent News in a phone interview. “The bottom line is no one wants to hear the truth. There’s a lynch mob mentality right now.”
Miller blamed the men who were fired from Rolling Hills for “cherry picking” recycling material and failing to provide adequate overnight security for stirring controversy over the Rolling Hills landfill.
“This is an extremely valuable piece of property, not just for us, but for the community in its position for economic development,” he said. “Are we going to risk this property with pollution? No!”
He pointed out it’s a large tract with energy distribution on two sides, an 18-inch gas line, 40-inch sewer line and railroad. Also, the county has a four-lane road on the drawing board that would cut across the tract.
“Which alignment they pick really determines the life of the C&D option,” Miller said.
He said the landfill is complying with a DEP remediation plan to treat groundwater pollution. He explained the odor issue was a “very small problem with hydrogen sulfide” that he blamed on the torrential April storms.
As far as the groundwater concerns, Miller said the water table is 150-feet below his site. He said the Wedgewood neighborhood is uphill from the landfill and a 48-inch pipe collects all the stormwater from the area and dumps it on his property.
“They are the ones polluting me,” Miller said. “I’m accepting the fact there’s nothing I can say to change anybody’s minds.”
Miller said that the mound of debris is actually 5-feet below the maximum allowable height; and 10-12-feet below the “natural height.” On the dust issue, he said now they’re burying stuff under 2-feet of dirt rather than 12-18 inches. Plus, “if it’s not raining, we have a 1,000-gallon water truck.”
“That we’re not responsive is just ridiculous,” Miller said.
A History of Problems
The Independent News reviewed over 450 documents the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had on the facility. The C&D landfill has a checkered environmental past. South Palafox Properties has been issued several Consent Orders by DEP.
On March 7, 2011, DEP entered into a Consent Order after a finding of violation of unauthorized disposal of Class I and III solid waste, unauthorized air emissions, lack of weekly cover, improper working face and slopes greater than three feet horizontal to one foot vertical. South Palafox Properties was ordered to pay $3,5OO in penalties and costs.
On August 5, 2011, DEP entered into another Consent Order after the finding of a second violation of unauthorized disposal of Class I and III solid waste. The penalties and costs were $2,500.
According to a Notice of Violation dated Feb. 11, 2012, DEP found at the facility on Sept. 29, 2011, Sept. 30, 2011 and Oct. 11, 2011, more non-C&D debris, including clothing, electronics, mattresses and household garbage.
According to DEP, monitoring wells have been placed on the property to sample points of both groundwater and surface water at the facility. The groundwater monitoring data indicates elevated levels of arsenic, boron, ammonia, iron and total dissolved solids and surface water concerns related to arsenic and iron.
South Palafox Properties submitted its Remedial Action Plan, which was approved in July 2013. The facility was expected to implement the remedial action plan as submitted to and approved by the Department with 120 days of that approval.
According to local DEP official, the plan was to install a remediation system that would pump ground water from recovery wells to a treatment system. At this point the facility has failed to make progress in the implementation of this plan, due at least in part to their failure to obtain proper authorization from Escambia County to alter their stormwater system. The facility, according to DEP, is working with the county to address this issue. The state expects the facility will resume construction of the remediation system immediately.
A recent DEP inspection report for the facility noted that the proper financial assurances required by the agency had not been made South Palafox Properties. DEP officials told the Independent News that the company was required to have financial assurance for the corrective actions associated with the remedial action plan. The facility submitted cost estimates as required, which are used to determine the value of financial assurance required, and DEP approved those estimates in August 2013. The financial assurance has not been obtained by the facility.
Addressing The Dust and Odor
Since April, DEP and Escambia County have received several complaints concerning Rolling Hills about the odor, dust and the height of the debris mound. Both the state and county inspected the facility several times in April and May.
According to DEP, the odor is a result of the decomposition of the C&D material at the site, primarily from the breakdown of drywall that results in the production of hydrogen sulfide and produces a rotten egg like smell.
A May 6 letter to Charles Davidson, co-owner of the facility, DEP asked him to submit an odor remediation plan. The plan has not yet been submitted. However, DEP staff met with the facility operators on June 17 and was told the plan is forthcoming. At that meeting, DEP also requested the facility have a professional survey conducted to measure the height of debris mound. DEP anticipate the results of this professional survey within the next two to four weeks.
DEP also instructed the operators to cover the slope on the north side with dirt. Staff confirmed the activity being done on June 18. According to DEP, the facility is expected to monitor the perimeter of the facility to determine the effectiveness of this corrective action. The facility’s odor remediation plan should address this issue long term.
Two months before the DEP meeting with Rolling Hills, the Escambia Solid Waste staff met with the operators at the facility. In an email dated April 21, Pat Johnson, head of the department, summarized what was discussed. Rolling Hills had not worked the land clearing waste in accordance with permit conditions for several months. The operators told the county that it would be sufficiently covered in two weeks.
County staff discussed with the operators the odor problem. According to its permit, the facility was to cover the construction and demolition debris bi-weekly. Rolling Hills indicated that suitable cover to reduce the smell would be installed by May 19.
On June 17, the same day DEP was meeting with Rolling Hills, the county issued a Notice of Violation for the facility. Six violations were listed:
• No person shall cause, suffer, allow or permit the discharge in the air of dust, fumes, gas, mist, odor, smoke or vapor, or any combination thereof, so as to constitute a nuisance as defined herein.
• All working faces must be covered bi-weekly by cover sufficient in quantity to deprive debris of oxygen minimize the risk of fire and prevent emission of objectionable odors.
• An effective dust suppression system must be provided.
• No person shall operate a regional, rural, infill or transfer C&DD or LCD facility until first obtaining an interim permit from the department of solid waster management.
• Every use shall be operated so as to prevent the emission into the air of dust or other solid matter as specified in F.A.C. ch. 17-2, as amended, “Rules of Department of Environmental Protection: Air Pollution.”
• Every use shall be operated so as to prevent the emission of objectionable or offensive odors in such concentration as to be readily perceptible at any point at or beyond the lot line of the property on which the use is located as specified in F.A.C. ch. 17-2, as amended, “Rules of Department of Environmental Protection: Air Pollution.”
South Palafox Properties has 10 days to correct the violations. If it does not, the Escambia County Office of Environmental Enforcement may fine the company or hold a hearing.
Commissioner May was happy to hear that the county had taken action to force the facility into compliance. He also appreciated that DEP was working with South Palafox Properties.
“The people of Wedgewood deserve the same quality of life standards as other parts of the county,” he told the Independent News. “Many of these families lived in that neighborhood long before the landfills. They shouldn’t have to suffer because these businesses have moved in.”
May said that he has been working with county staff to test the groundwater and air around Rolling Hills C&D Recycling Center and the other landfills in the area. He is concerned over the health problems that Wedgewood residents have developed over the past decade.
“This area is a top priority for me,” May said. “We will be discussing it more at upcoming county commission meetings.”
The residents of the Wedgewood neighborhood are going to make sure the county commissioners discuss the landfills and the adverse impact on their community. They have seen how residents in the North Hill area got Gov. Rick Scott to stop the Department of Corrections from relocating its parole and probation offices near their neighborhood. They have seen the residents in Cordova Park rise up to stop a zoning change that would have allowed Dollar General to build a store on the corner of Spanish Trail and Summit Boulevard.
The Wedgewood community has gotten organized, too, and they will be attending the Escambia County Commission meeting on Thursday, June 26. They will wear orange to show unity and will address the board.
Georgia Sunday, president of the Wedgewood-Rolling Hills Neighborhood Association, has been working hard to make sure they have a strong presence. She has seen the quality of life decline in her area, which she called “The Bottom.” Her husband has never smoked or drank and was very athletic up until about a year and half ago. Since the, he has respiratory problems and has had several tests. They tested him for allergies and found the only thing he was allergic to was dust.
“In the past 10 years, we have lost in her neighborhood over 25 people to cancer, renal failure and respiratory problems,” Sunday said. “We’ve had young as well as old people.”
She attended the June 3 county commission meeting and one of the commissioners motivated her. “When a county commissioner said two weeks ago that the county had spent $8 million to clean up the Saufley Field Landfill, that really gave me the incentive to push harder,” Sunday said. “If they can spend $8 million to clean up that area, what can they do for us? If can be done for one area, it can be done for this area.”
Sunday and her friends have been passing out a flier to their neighbors asking them to attend the June 26 county commission meeting. Their message is simple and direct: “Wear orange. Come and support us.”
“My minister read it on Sunday,” she said. “We want to get the churches involved. We want everyone to come down and just fill the place.”
Sunday believes that time to act is now. She said, “The safety and health problems that we are having need to be addressed, and the death rate is very high for our area. We want something done, and we don’t want to wait forever.”
Duwayne Escobedo contributed to this article.