How close would you live to a landfill or trash dump? Would you live a mile away? A block? How about 20 feet? That’s what many residents of Bithlo on the south side of HWY 50 have done for close to three decades.
If that wasn’t bad enough, what if said dump had numerous reports stretching for years of contaminated water, toxic levels of heavy metals, improperly disposed hazardous waste and who knows what else? Imagine your kids playing in a drainage ditch full of runoff from the 30 foot high piles of trash, stretching for eight acres or drinking well water from a source right next to the very same ditch.
For years residents of Bithlo have dealt with the now condemned and dilapidated A-Z Recycling Center location, begging for help, and receiving nothing more than broken promises from dozens of county officials and staff. But they’ve never had a unified voice before trying to help them.
Tim McKinney, executive vice president of United Global Outreach (UGO), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the community of Bithlo, has taken a vested interest in cleaning up the property. Now overgrown with weeds and with dozens of pieces of fence missing, the property appears to be all but forgotten about to the outside world.
While giving a recent area tour to several county employees, McKinney asked if they knew what the large hills and rusted metal fence were for. Not sure themselves, they suggested McKinney do a public records request to find out. Roughly 50 cases, mounds of paperwork and 60 man hours later, he started to realize the facility is more than just an eye sore.
“I started to dig into the records and realized this is a real problem,” he says. “There’s been numerous lawsuits over the past twenty years and a few estimates on what it would take to clean up the land, but for whatever reason the ball has been dropped numerous times, even with the county knowing the potential harm for residents here.”
Through the documents and court depositions, he has come across numerous studies suggesting the area is unsafe, filled with asbestos-laden material, open paint cans, drums filled with an “unknown liquid substance” and more. A brief history also finds that the property was a sinkhole prior to be filled in so the depths of waste dumped there is unknown. Other documents show a former county staffer suggesting the only reason the county should not put a lien on the property and take ownership is to avoid liability to a contaminated property – that was in the mid 1990′s. Instead, the county has let a $250 a day fine rise to an accumulated $1,669,000 at last check within the past 30 days.
“One of the things that’s documented in multiple ways to be there is debris from the original Orlando City Hall building that was imploded in 1991 in Lethal Weapon 3,” says McKinney. “To me that really reveals the symbolism of what’s happened to this community – the city of Orlando has literally dumped on Bithlo.”
But all of that is in the past. So are numerous memos from county staffers addressing the problem, suggesting a cleanup should be done immediately – some of which are 15 years old and older. For McKinney and UGO, the next step is to make sure the ball is not dropped again. He has already had multiple meetings and briefings with county staff on the issue. “I understand that April 14 they are going to have a senior level briefing to update everyone again and get a gameplan,” he says. “But county staffers were meeting weekly for years on this issue and they still haven’t gotten the first shovel-full removed.”
The goal for McKinney is simple: get the former recycling center/landfill cleaned up as soon as possible. “As an organization, we want to continue moving this community forward,” he says. “We want government to say, ‘We dropped the ball and here is how we’re going to make things right.’ If they say we need 10 dump trucks, I’ll find 10 dump trucks. Whatever the answer is, we want to be a part of it.”
McKinney believes the difference this time around is his organization and mission. “I think they need an organization like ours to hold them accountable or help find private solutions or bridge the communication gap,” he says. “We need to find a plan and work the plan – obviously that hasn’t happened in the past.”
He contends that if this were going on in any other part of the county it would be on the evening news immediately. “If the property is potentially contaminated, it needs to be cleaned up because it’s the right thing to do, not ignored to avoid liability,” says McKinney. “All I want the county to do is the right thing. If they haven’t done the right thing up to this point, they need to make up for it and help resolve this issue.”
Article by Corey Gehrold
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