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Dump the Dump

By Gabrielle Keller

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Imagine you are driving with the windows down toward the scenic Hawthorne Trail. You notice how Gainesville’s architecture slowly disappears and is replaced by beautiful greenery. Heavy winds are blowing the leaves off the trees as you pass by. Suddenly, the horrible smell of rotten eggs fills the air and doesn’t go away. You can no longer enjoy the beautiful scenery; the only thing you can think about is that stench. 

This frequent unpleasant aroma is the reality for residents of Southeast Gainesville. The rotten-egg odor is emitted from a construction demolition landfill privately operated by the Florence family, owners of Southeast Landholdings Inc., for nearly 30 years. 

Dumping waste into landfill

Gainesville is grappling with a contentious battle over the construction demolition landfill, a 28-acre and nearly 35-foot-high mound situated incongruously in a predominantly Black residential neighborhood. 

The Florence construction demolition landfill located at 1810 SE 29th Ave. is full of discarded debris from the construction of houses and buildings. The scraps are relocated to the dump, including drywall and petroleum-based asphalt shingles. The landfill will double in height to 70 feet, approved by the Alachua County Commission in 2019 and permitted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in July 2023.

In the last year, Southeast Gainesville residents have organized to challenge the Florences and Alachua County for decisions leading to the inappropriately located landfill persisting in their neighborhood. Suzmiché Morris, a Southeast Gainesville resident since 1993 and a University of Florida graduate, is actively engaged in the movement to close the landfill. The community initiative unveils a complex history of legislation, community impact and environmental injustice.

Morris, who moved to Southeast Gainesville in 2003 to be amongst the beautiful nature, stumbled upon the landfill controversy when she learned of the dump's plans to double its height to 70 feet. “I never saw that coming,” she said as she recalled discovering the plans for the dump. She was always told the landfill was harmless and set to close. Shocked and concerned, she embarked on a journey of education, uncovering the detrimental effects of the landfill on her community.

The Florence family bought the landfill in 1993 after several issues with previous owners illegally dumping materials. In 1994, the Alachua County Board of Commissioners granted a Special Use Permit to the Florences allowing construction and demolition debris disposal and recovery with conditions.

 A 1994 letter from the Alachua County Department of Growth Management to Paul Florence, the president of Southeast Landholdings, Inc., stated the conditions of this permit. According to the letter, the Florence family could operate the landfill for five years, as they prepared to close it in 1999. 

The Florences were allowed to fill the excavated holes with construction and demolition debris to prepare for closing. This was not supposed to exceed two feet and was to be capped with vegetative topsoil. 

“It was supposed to end in ‘99, and here we are in 2024 and they are almost at 35 feet when it should’ve never gone past two feet,” said Morris. 

Not only has the landfill exceeded the two-foot limit, but it is set to continue growing. In 2019, the Florences applied to double the height of the dump. After improving some of the landfill’s conditions, Southeast Landholdings got approved for a permit modification in June 2023. 

Morris and several neighbors challenged the permit modification by filing for an Administrative Hearing.

“70 feet will be above the tree line,” said Miriam Welly Elliot, a Gainesville resident of 29 years who lives four-tenths of a mile from the landfill. This means the dump will become a larger, smellier problem. 

As the drywall sits idle in the landfill and undergoes weather, it slowly decomposes and emits what is suspected to be hydrogen sulfide gas, according to Morris. This gas is what is causing the rotten egg smell. 

Morris first noticed the smell in 2010 occurring during cold, moist, winter conditions. Since 2016, it has become increasingly frequent as the dump grows. 

Morris says the odor gets trapped in her and her neighbors’ homes. She often has to blast the air purifier until the smell subsides from the house. The debris also leaves dust in the air that gets onto homes, cars and plants.

Additionally, semi-tractor trailers that deposit the debris must ascend and descend the nearly 35-foot high mound at the landfill, crushing trash and generating loud noises about 12 times a day, which can be heard from neighboring homes and the street.

Beyond these obvious disruptions, there are more profound implications. The decomposition of drywall and other debris raises health and environmental concerns. The landfill is located near Boulware Springs and Paynes Prairie. The contaminants that are potentially seeping into the groundwater may have grave effects on the wildlife and the people who use the water. 

Walking in the woods in Gainesville

“How it’s just dragged on and gotten bigger and bigger and stinkier and louder and more of a concern to contaminate our groundwater is just totally bewildering,” said Morris.

“I feel very emotional at times wondering what impacts [the landfill] has on my partner and his health. That’s very concerning to me,” said Elliot. Her partner has many health complications, and she fears the contaminants the landfill emits into the air and water may harm him. 

The stormwater issue at the landfill raised significant concerns and received noncompliance violations related to secondary drinking water standards. While the water affected by these infringements is considered safe for consumption, the landfill exceeded permissible levels for sulfates, total dissolved solids, iron, and chloride. This contamination not only impacted local wells, but also had repercussions on everyday activities like staining laundry, causing bacterial problems in neighbors’ wells and strong odors in the water. 

“We are scared of when the noncompliance drinking water violation is not just secondary; when it’s primary," said Morris."We don’t want to wait for that.” 

When asked about the matter, the Florence family and dump operators offered no comment and denied access to the landfill.

Advocating for deconstruction over demolition, Morris wants Southeast Landholdings to divert drywall from the landfill, pushing for responsible waste management and recycling.

“If we can’t get closure, we have to make it safer,” said Morris.

Because the landfill only has one dumpster to put the debris, Morris and the community are pushing the Florences to have a separate container on the construction sites and require clients to separate the drywall. 

“We can actually recycle this stuff locally,” said Morris. For example, there is a recycling facility in Palatka, Florida, where the drywall can be transported. 

Morris has diligently documented the unsettling reality of the construction demolition landfill's impact, meticulously charting odor levels daily for over a month. These odors, indicative of hydrogen sulfide gas, intensify during sundown and sunrise. 

A man speaking

In a bid to address the gas concerns, the county plans to borrow monitoring equipment from the state to track fume levels. Morris hopes they will run it for several months. Morris’s husband meticulously records and analyzes ongoing data, uncovering increasingly negative trends. According to Morris, Florence assesses this data superficially, grouping the results into predefined categories, or "brackets," which do not convey the gravity of the deteriorating situation. 

Backed by an environmental engineer and hydrologist, the community stands firmly behind the graphs, revealing spikes in harmful substances such as arsenic, ammonia and lead. Morris raises concerns about the city's water monitoring testing for Boulware Springs, noting that it falls short of assessing the parameter analyses required by the state for the Florence landfill wells. Neighboring wells, tested every other year instead of quarterly to monthly, further underscore the urgency of comprehensive and frequent monitoring to grasp the true extent of the environmental impact.

In their quest for a safer and more environmentally responsible approach to the Florence landfill and a comprehensive understanding of its impacts, community members, including Morris, have outlined a comprehensive set of requests directed toward the county. Morris emphasizes the importance of quarterly water testing, regular assessments of neighboring wells and prolonged monitoring of hydrogen sulfide levels to understand the landfill's effect on the water and air quality. Morris advocates for its careful analysis and control to mitigate its impact on plants, homes, cars and pets. 

Florence landfill

Elliot emphasizes the need to mobilize neighbors and collaborate with organizations like the Sierra Club, which has played a pivotal role connecting the community with legal support. In addition to the environmental and health concerns, the Florence landfill highlights the huge economic and racial disparity in Southeast Gainesville. For Johnell Gainey, the fight to close the landfill is intertwined with broader aspirations for economic development and fair representation in a neglected part of Gainesville. Gainey, a lifelong Southeast Gainesville resident, roamed the woods near his home as a child, blissfully unaware of the adjacent presence of the landfill that would come to dominate his community. As he grew older, wisdom replaced innocence, and questions arose about the systemic issues that the landfill represents and helps sustain. 

Gainey questions the feasibility of attracting investments with a landfill in the neighborhood. “The dump adds no value to anything that is built,” said Gainey. He wants to see infrastructure develop in the Southeast of Gainesville, just like the rest of the city. He says that the people living here pay the same amount in taxes as other neighborhoods, yet none of the money is being spent on their part of town. 

“For me, to get some real development and some real fairness on the Southeast side, closing the dump is the first thing,” said Gainey. 

He emphasized that the community can no longer remain silent and must actively participate to bring about the change needed for the betterment of their neighborhood and the broader community.

“Now we woke and we can’t go back to sleep,” said Gainey. 

In a strategic move, Florence's local attorney has submitted a document to the county, invoking a legislative extension from the governor's office to prolong its five-year Special Use Permit without local input. Citing the governor's declaration of a state of emergency during hurricanes, the attorney contends that this extension is akin to contractors adding tolling times to permits during periods of operational disruptions. 

The hearing, scheduled for Jan. 22, 2024 was crucial for the landfill's Special Use Permit, prompting the community group to request party status, allowing them to speak during the quasi-judicial hearing and cross-examine. However, the legislative extension automatically tacked on an additional four years without involving local government officials. 

Our voices got taken out in the process. I don’t understand how they qualified for that,” said Elliot.

While the statute acknowledges situations where the county can still exert authority over such extensions, it requires proof of material noncompliance, particularly in cases of violating primary drinking water standards. Basically, the county can’t exercise authority until the issue has escalated to an advanced stage and people are in immediate danger. 

Recognizing the influence of powerful interests, even within environmental circles, Elliot urges a collective fight against bureaucratic hurdles and challenges those who turn a blind eye to the issue. She hopes more community members join the movement, and that it receives more awareness and press coverage from the greater Gainesville community. 

“We are not going to go down without a fight,” Elliot says. 

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