FloridaTrend.com, the Website for Florida Business

Dumping Grounds

In a county that has seen its share of scandal, the discovery of illegal dumping on a massive scale at numerous Clay County "borrow" pits has sent shock waves through the community.

Longtime County Manager Bob Wilson and Department of Public Works Director Arthur Ivey resigned hours before the County Commission was to decide their fates. As the county continues to discover new illegal dumpsites, officials say they have no idea how the already cash-strapped county will come up with the tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions of dollars it will take to clean up the acres of contaminated land.

One dump contained the remains of a junked fire engine.

Agents from the FBI, State Attorney's Office and Department of Environmental Protection continue to sift through debris at the three largest pits discovered to date -- landfills that were supposed to store only clay, lime rock, dirt and other materials used mainly for road projects. Instead, the decades-old dumps were crammed with tons of construction debris -- some of it tainted with lead, arsenic and other hazardous materials.

"This is probably the largest scandal to ever hit this county," Commission Chairman George Bush said at a recent board meeting.

Initial tests show no contaminants have seeped into several nearby drinking water wells. Still, the county has promised to furnish bottled water to nearby homes until a full environmental accounting is completed.

Problems at Clay County landfills first came to light in June 2003 when commission auditor Michael Price found the Public Works Department had not charged a contractor who had dumped approximately 150,000 cubic yards of material at one pit. Following the report, rumors began to fly about questionable practices at several other landfills.

Last September, the FBI and State Attorney's Office put two investigators on the case. The agents hounded Public Works employees (conducting stakeouts at some homes) and installed hidden cameras at several pits. In March, they raided at least one landfill as employees scurried to bury a load of construction debris.

With the main dumpsites identified and Wilson and Ivey out of office, the investigation has become more methodical. Investigators are reportedly interested in learning which building contractors were involved and what they may have paid county employees. They also want to learn who in county government knew of the decades-long practice.

The dumping scandal is but the latest in a string of blunders to have, in the words of Bush, "given the county a huge black eye." Longtime Sheriff Scott Lancaster failed to win re-election last November after it was revealed that he used a county credit card for lavish personal expenses. Several years ago, Clerk of Court John Keene was forced to resign after his office "lost" $16 million in what he called an "accounting error."