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St. Lucie County leaders want more answers before fertilizer proposal approved

Posted at 10:06 PM, Jun 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-12 22:12:14-04

A farm in St. Lucie County wants to create and use a compost partially made of recycled human waste. And neighbors like Michael Hale aren't happy about it. Hale has tended to his family's Fort Pierce land his whole life.

"29 years," he said. "My grandpa bought this land back in the 1960s."

But he doesn't love the smell from his neighbors nearby.

"I feel helpless," he said. "We did a Thanksgiving out on my property and had thousands of flies all over everything. You had to swat flies to eat the food."

He lives next door to Sunbreak Farms, which uses manure to help fertilize their corn crops but they want to launch a new method of treating the land.

The company submitted a plan with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to use biosolids -- which is partially made from recycled human waste -- as fertilizer at a 6,580-acre facility in St. Lucie and Indian River counties.

The site sits on Minute Maid Road, on the old citrus land of the Minute Maid company. Sunbreak produces two crops of corn a year exclusively for animal feed. The corn harvest involves removing almost the entire plant, which means all nutrients used to create the plant are removed from the soil and must be replaced.

According to Sunbreak, the new plan for this biosolid compost could help the farm produce more corn, more efficiently. They would plan to use 80,000 tons annually of the compost on their crops.

Local farmers said it’s not a common farming practice and adding to the concern is the fact that the property sits near canals connecting to the Indian River Lagoon.

"As a farmer I don't want to regulate anybody from doing farm practices, but this affects everybody in this area," Hale said. "Any manure will cause flies when you bring it in a large scale -- 7,000 acres -- you bring in a large amount of it. And it accumulates. During their last dumping, there was nothing but sludge coming out. It was like pudding. It was nasty. "

Dozens of residents from around St. Lucie County spoke out at the meeting. People who live near the farm worry about the smell, the drainage, and how any runoff could impact the already sensitive canals and contribute to toxic algae formations. Runoff could contain pharmaceuticals and bacteria.

"I've already seen the degradation we experienced last summer. The algae mats and toxic fumes. It's just a concern," said Jerry Buechler, a Port St. Lucie resident who kayaks the lagoon. "If we had the rain we had in the last week, and you have 40 million pounds is what it comes to of human waste. I mean, where's that going to wash to? A lot of that could wash into our groundwater."

Sunbreak representatives, some who say battled the blue algae crisis themselves, defended their proposal.

"In no way would I work on a project that would jeopardize that and absolutely impact in a negative way the estuaries I have worked so hard to restore," said Sunbreak representative Tobin Overdorf during Monday's meeting.

Sunbreak also claims the site has 67 miles of internal canals and is designed to hold water in a 1.7 billion gallon reservoir, not discharge it.

"Water is probably one of the most, if not the most valuable asset to a farmer. Any drop of water they can hold on the property, they are going to hold," said Overdorf during the meeting.

Still, residents shared questions during the meeting.

"Is this reservoir a reservoir with birds and wildlife or is it a big pit? I mean, there's a lot of things to be discovered," said Buechler.

"If they actually build a facility, and have it enclosed and not open air, I wouldn't have as much of a problem with it because they could bring their material into an enclosed place and process it and do what they need, then move it out," said Hale. "But being an open air facility, they're brining their material in and dropping it on the side of a canal. And they have to let it sit until it become compost. So if you get rain out here, it's going into the closest canal."

However, Sunbreak said each compost pile is required to have a containment berm and ditch designed to contain 100-year, 3-day rainfall.

According to a Sunbreak, "If one or more of these systems were to fail, any storm water would be captured by the farm's internal ditch system."

Excess water is pumped to the 640 acre reservoir, which, with its bermed sides, can hold thousands of acre feet of discharge, Sunbreak said in an informational handout.

Sunbreak representatives also said that there are no residential structures within one mile of the proposed compost piles.

"That is a tremendous buffer to have," said Overdorf.

Overdorf added that in the event of a hurricane or strong storm, the farm would shut down operations and would make sure the area is secure. He said with the buffer zone around the site, he doubts material could be carried that far by winds.

The DEP gave St. Lucie County commissioners until 5 p.m. Monday to submit any comments on the permit application. The commissioners ultimately decided to take legal action and file a formal petition, demanding more information before any permits are issued.

Commission chairman Chris Dzadovsky of District 1 said discrepancies in the application and contradicting information between what was written in the application and what was said in the meeting contributed to the decision.

"There were significant conflicts in the application itself. Everything from location to determinations and definitions of standing water," he said. "We stand tall and part of our mission statement is to protect the environment."

Hale hopes the county and the farm can come to an agreement that involves protecting the environment.

"I don't think this problem is going to go away but I hope we can resolve a way that's a lot more cleaner for the rest of the industry and the people around them," he said. "They have to deal with the farmers and the Right to Farm Act. So, I think the commissioners did as best of a job they could."

Representatives with Sunbreak Farms would not speak to WPTV on camera due to pending litigation.

The county attorney said during the meeting that the administrative hearing could take place as early as August, depending on scheduling. He added that the legal expenses could be costly.