Judge puts concerns of environmental violations on hold

It did not smell bad around BS Ranch when this photo was taken on the morning Sept. 11. The site mixes ground wood material with bio solids from waste water treatment plants and septic waste to manufacture compost. State regulators have alleged that waste is seeping into nearby wetlands.

BARTOW – A Sept. 7 court battle between Polk County government and a Lakeland business accused of ongoing environmental violations has been rescheduled for Nov. 9.

On Dec. 6, 2016, Polk County Commissioners unanimously passed a land use permit allowing a company called BS Ranch to begin accepting and mixing stinky sludge from area waste water treatment plants, septic tank waste, old French fry grease from fast food restaurants, and yard debris collected by county municipalities to create a fertilizer-like soil to be sold to farmers.

Located near the Polk County Landfill, on low value reclaimed mining land, surrounded by other industrial businesses, BS Ranch owners promised county and state officers to limit odors from the facility and promised not to let any of the toxic waste to seep into the ground water or area streams. The Florida Department of Environment permitted the business to manufacture compost, prior to the county permit, in May 2016.

Each of the county commissioners said he or she had visited the site prior to their 2016 vote. Erik Peterson, the principal planner for the county planning department, recommended that the commissioners approve the permit, saying he had visited the site many times and had never noticed a smell and that the planning commission had unanimously approved of the permit in advance of the commission vote. Peterson said as of December 2016, there had been no county code enforcement complaints over odor at the facility.

Sixteen days after the county commission vote, a resident living around BS Ranch filed a written complaint to Florida Department of Environmental Protection staff about odor coming from BS Ranch. By March dozens of additional complaints were made according to court documents. On March 8, 2017, BS Ranch owners William and Brandy Stanton responded to the FDEP complaints by saying the nearby landfill was the source of the smell and that they were taking steps to limit odor coming from their compost facility.

On March 21, 2017, at a county commission meeting, eight members of the public made complaints and five people spoke in favor of BS Ranch. Commissioner George Lindsey said the smell around the compost facility was much worse than it had been the first time he inspected the property. Commissioner Lindsey suggested county staff consider an injunction against the facility. Three days later, County Attorney Michael Freeman filed a cease and desist order against BS Ranch to stop operations. In court documents, county staff say while odor was not initially a problem, clearly it had become a problem after.

Ever since that day, a legal fight between Polk County and BS Ranch owners has been ongoing. The ranch owners subsequently filed a petition with the state to prevent the county injunction efforts. A Tallahassee administrative judge sided in favor of the ranch owners and then county staff appealed to Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet. On Aug. 14, 2018, Gov. Scott, and members of his cabinet, Adam Putnam, Pam Bondi and Jimmy Patronis, overruled the administrative judge in favor of county staff, saying county staff were allowed to challenge the BS Ranch owners legally. Attorney General Bondi said it was an issue that should not have reached the cabinet for a decision.

“It needs to go back to the legislature,” Bondi said Aug. 14.

Parties in litigation generally do not comment about litigation with the media. Since BS Ranch accepts septic waste, the Winter Haven Sun reached out to Jeff Mann, who has owned Mann Septic Tank Service for decades to get his input. Mann is currently running against County Commissioner Melony Bell for Florida House District 56 and he said one of the reasons he decided to run for the state legislator is to change state law allowing places like BS Ranch to exist. Mann said BS Ranch is unique in that it is the only facility in the state that accepts hundreds of thousands of gallons of biological waste per year. Mann said it is much better for the environment to dispose of this type of waste in smaller amounts spread out over more locations than to centralize disposal in one location.

Mann said around the time county staff and commissioners inspected BS Ranch, operations were not in full swing and the smell was not bad. After, he said, the smell got much worse. Since then Mann said that FDEP staff have mandated that BS Ranch owners accept less sludge from water treatment plants, the worst smelling of waste, and that recently when he drove by BS Ranch he noticed that the smell is not nearly as bad as it once was. Still, Mann said he has concerns, especially concerns about FDEP allegations that waste from BS Ranch is seeping into Saddle Creek and making its’ way into Lake Hancock. According to FDEP, BS Ranch is around a 300-acre property, of which 108.19 acres are wetlands.

There are several environmental activists who have also been expressing concern about BS Ranch waste getting into the aquifer, wetlands, and area streams and lakes. Lakeland residents Kirk Sullivan, who owns a pool manufacturing business near BS Ranch and Cody Phillips, both administer a Facebook page called Polk County FL – BS Poisoned Our Water. Sullivan and Phillips recently posted allegations that rains associated with Hurricane Irma last year and the record-breaking summer rain of 2018 have overwhelmed the berms holding liquid biological waste on site and that the waste has seeped offsite. At court Sept. 7, Sullivan encouraged members of the public who wanted to attend the hearing to demand water testing around BS Ranch.

The Winter Haven Sun will follow this environmental case as needed.

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