Florida Home to Seven Air Polluters on EPA Watch List

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency included the Pinellas County Resource Recovery Facility on the July Facility Watch List for violators of the Clean Air Act. (Photo by Trevor Aaronson.)

By Trevor Aaronson and Mc Nelly Torres
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Listen to Trevor Aaronson discuss this story on NPR:

The Pinellas County Resource Recovery Facility is one of the nation’s largest waste-to-energy trash incinerators. The plant’s boilers consume 3,000 tons of garbage every day, creating saleable energy that allows the county facility to turn a $20 million annual profit.

About This Story

FCIR partnered with NPR and the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News to examine toxic sites. Read iWatch News’ story, “Poisoned Places.”

Join the Conversation

Discuss this report through Twitter by using the hashtag #toxicair.

Florida Media Partners

Tampa Bay Sites Among Florida’s Worst Polluters,” WUSF 89.7 News.

Florida Home to ‘Major’ Polluters,” The Ledger.

En Español

Los siete infractores de la Florida

Despite the waste-to-energy plant’s massive size and soaring smokestack on 705 acres of land near the western banks of Tampa Bay, the facility easily goes unnoticed by the tens of thousands who pass by it daily on Interstate 275.

But the facility hasn’t gone unnoticed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been concerned about excess emissions at the plant. The Pinellas facility was one of seven sites included within the last three months on the EPA Facility Watch List, which names “high-priority violators” of the Clean Air Act whose violations have gone unresolved for more than 270 days. State officials in 2010 cited and fined Pinellas County $50,000 for excess hazardous emissions caused by poor equipment maintenance during a boiler refurbishment.

“We were already in the process of fixing everything,” said Robert Hauser Jr., the facility’s operations manager. “We’ve taken care of the violation, and we’ve resolved it.”

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, is disclosing for the first time the air polluters in the Sunshine State that have most concerned federal regulators. These sites were included on the EPA Watch List in July or September for having unresolved violations.

The other Florida sites on the Facility Watch List were the Brevard County Central Disposal Facility in Cocoa, Eager Beaver Trailers in Lake Wales, the Miami-Dade County Resource Recovery Facility in Doral, Motiva Enterprises in Tampa, Tampa Electric Company’s Big Bend Station in Apollo Beach, and Naval Air Station Jacksonville.

The seven polluters demonstrate how toothless, and at times helpless, federal, state and county regulators can be in preventing hazardous emissions from entering the air Floridians breathe.

Tampa Electric Company’s Big Bend Station, a coal-burning power plant on the eastern banks of Tampa Bay, is a persistent violator. In the last five years, regulators have cited 10 violations in 37 inspections — a 27 percent violation rate.

Gardner Harshman, who retired after 30 years with Florida Power Corp., lives in the Mainlands, a retirement community half a mile from the Pinellas County Resource Recovery Facility. He complained to regulators about ash from the facility covering cars in the community. (Photo by Steve Newborn/WUSF.)

“The air is disgustingly filthy in the morning from that plant,” said Tampa resident Michael Waite, who lives on a peninsula in the bay upwind from Bid Bend Station.

Cherie Jacobs, a spokesperson for TECO, said 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.

At another Facility Watch List site, environmental regulators in Florida were blocked from enforcing emission standards against a high-priority polluter. In 2009, regulators cited the U.S. Navy for unauthorized paint blasting at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. The U.S. Navy did not resolve the violation, which prompted the station’s inclusion on the EPA’s Facility Watch List. Yet regulators in Florida remained helpless to enforce environmental standards.

“We don’t have the authority to enforce at a federal facility,” said Vince A. Seibold, chief of Jacksonville’s Environmental Quality Division. “Only the federal government can enforce against a federal facility. We kicked it up to the EPA, and they still haven’t done anything.”

Two of the most significant Florida polluters on the Facility Watch List represent an industry in which the Sunshine State leads the nation. Florida burns more trash than any other state, and much of that trash incineration is used to create energy.

Facts About Waste to Energy

Florida permitted the state’s first waste-to-energy plant in Miami-Dade County in the mid-1970s. Today, 12 waste-to-energy facilities operate in Florida.

In 2005, Florida generated more energy from waste incinerators and landfill gas than any other state, an estimated 3.0 billion kilowatt, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The Florida Medical Association expressed concerns about waste incinerators and biomass burning in 2008 and urged state officials to reduce the number of new incinerators permitted.

Palm Beach County officials awarded a $600 million contract to Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group and BE&K Inc. in April to build a waste-to-energy plant that will burn 3,000 tons of trash daily.

Waste incineration is the most carbon-intensive form of energy generation, producing more carbon dioxide than coal. These emissions can lead to smog, acid rain and haze, and increases the risk of climate change.

— Mc Nelly Torres

In addition to the Pinellas County facility, a waste-to-energy plant in Miami-Dade County also made the Facility Watch List.

The waste-to-energy facilities in Pinellas and Miami-Dade counties are two of 12 operating in Florida, and they are also two of the largest in the state. Other waste-to-energy plants are in Bay, Broward, Lake, Lee, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Pasco counties.

The waste-to-energy industry solves two problems simultaneously — eliminating waste while creating energy largely independent of fossil fuels. But the tradeoff comes through invisible, potentially hazardous toxins released into the air.

“People living near incinerators are particularly at high risk of exposure to dioxin and other contaminants,” said Ananda Lee Tan of the Global Alliance for Incinerators Alternatives, a California-based group that lobbies against waste incineration.

Dioxins and furans, commonly released through waste incineration, can cause cancer and suppress the immune system. Animal studies also show these toxic substances can alter hormone systems and fetus development.

Located in Doral, the Miami-Dade County Resource Recovery Facility burns 1.2 million tons of garbage annually and creates enough electricity for 40,000 homes. But it exemplifies the environmental dangers waste-to-energy plants pose and how ineffective regulators can be in reining in persistent polluters.

Mired in controversy since its opening in 1982, the county-owned facility has a long record of  violating federal environmental standards and a history of being run by contractors. Once operated by Montenay Power Corporation, the Miami-Dade County Resource Recovery Facility was taken over by Covanta Energy Corporation in February 2010. New Jersey-based Covanta is the nation’s leading incinerator operator with 44 waste-to-energy facilities in the United States and Canada.

James Regan, a spokesman for Covanta, said the facility has been in full compliance since Covanta took over operations.

“In the case of the Miami-Dade Resources Recovery Facility, a review of state and operational records confirms that the HPV (High Priority Violation) noted in Quarters 1 and 2 (October 2008 through March 2009) was under enforcement action. Penalties were assessed and paid by the former operator,” Regan wrote on an e-mail response.

State environmental regulators cited the Miami-Dade waste-to-energy facility after documenting 129 health, pollution and safety violations in 1990 and failing to report several explosions, including one that badly burned a worker. State inspectors found that smokestacks billowed heavy metal contaminants into the air. The state Department of Environmental Protection in 1991 slapped Montenay with a record $640,000 fine.

Facility upgrades followed but didn’t curb the excess pollution. DEP cited the Miami-Dade County Resource Recovery Facility for violations in 2003, 2006 and 2007, issuing thousands in fines for spewing excess amounts of toxins into the air, caused “entirely or in part by poor maintenance, poor operation or equipment malfunction,” among other problems. In 2008, the state fined the facility $485,322 for, among other violations, failing to properly operate a system intended to reduce mercury and dioxin emissions. 

Despite the hefty fines, Alan Farago, president of Friends of the Everglades, whose mission is to protect and restore the wetlands, charges that regulators aren’t tough enough on polluters in a state whose most valuable resource is the environment.

“It’s a systemic problem,” Farago said. “What we have in Florida is a state that is claiming to be too poor to protect air and water quality while making it easy for business to keep polluting the environment.”

Florida’s air compliance and enforcement budget has been cut over the last three years. In fiscal year 2009, DEP had a $890,557 air enforcement budget. The fiscal year 2011 budget was $732,760. However, despite the budget cuts, DEP has increased its number of facility inspections, from 6,498 in fiscal year 2009 to 6,669 in fiscal year 2011, which ended June 30.

In cases of persistent polluters, DEP can go beyond fines and shut down facilities operating in Florida. “The Department of Environmental Protection may revoke an operating permit for failure to comply with pollution control laws,” said DEP spokesperson Dee Ann Miller. “If a facility persists in operating out of compliance with such laws, the department may seek court-ordered injunctive relief to enforce compliance.”

The Miami-Dade Resources Recovery Facility, operated by New Jersey-based Covanta, was included on the EPA’s July Facility Watch List. (Photo by Mc Nelly Torres.)

Records reviewed by FCIR show growing concern among regulators over some of the seven sites included on the EPA Facility Watch List.

After decades of citations and fines, state inspector Lee Hoefert noted continued violations at the Miami-Dade County Resource Recovery Facility to fellow state environmental regulators.

“I am concerned about what I consider to be an excessive number of violations at one facility,” he wrote in a September 2008 e-mail. “The Miami-Dade Resource Facility has had six violations requiring agency enforcement action in less than a two-year period.”

Hoefert isn’t the only Florida regulator finding it difficult to curb pollution at sites on the EPA list.

At another Facility Watch List site in Tampa, regulators cited and fined Motiva Enterprises, a partnership between Shell Oil Company and the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, for emissions and permit violations. Located in the Port of Tampa, Motiva Enterprises stores gasoline from incoming tankers.

Motiva Enterprises’ violations resulted in two consent orders and warranted the Tampa site’s inclusion on the EPA’s Facility Watch List. Motiva Enterprises referred questions to Shell Oil spokesperson Kayla Macke.

Her response to questions about what the company is doing to curb air pollution at the facility less than 10 miles from downtown Tampa: “We will respectfully decline to comment.”

Review Records From Florida’s Watch List Sites

Brevard County Central Disposal Facility, Cocoa

Eager Beaver Trailers, Lake Wales

Miami-Dade Resource Recovery Facility, Doral

Motiva Enterprises, Tampa

Naval Air Station, Jacksonville

Pinellas County Resource Recovery Facility, St. Petersburg

Tampa Electric Company Big Bend Station, Gibsonton