For weeks the Apopka Wastewater Treatment Facility has been the hottest topic in Apopka. Due in part to a recurring and scathing report from local news station WFTV Channel 9, and a "warning letter" sent by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection listing 14 issues of concern within the 26-year-old facility, the topic continued to gain steam, particularly with residents in close proximity to the plant.
On Wednesday night before a capacity crowd at the City Council meeting, the tension reached its peak. Several Apopka residents used the public comments portion of the meeting to air their grievances, express their concerns, and ask hard questions.
Dr. Ray Shackelford was the leadoff hitter for public comments, and he used a popular political phrase to make his point.
"I call upon this Council to trust but verify. All pollutants come into the wastewater treatment plant. Our public health must not be compromised. Moreover, while we applaud your service, our future is in your hands."
Apopka businessman Rod Love has been on the forefront of this issue almost from the beginning. He asked the Council two weeks ago to alert the community in case of emergency.
"I want the City Council to reconsider invoking an ordinance to inform the public when there is a health crisis. Right now we're seeing and hearing different news reports and we don't know what's going on. One of the things that would calm the public is if there was transparency. We continue to see and hear all of the reports on wastewater management and we don't know what's going on. You tell us. We are the second largest municipality in Orange County. We should have something in place. If we had an ordinance in place, we would be clear if there was a health hazard. We would be clear then."
Apopka resident David Rankin ripped into the City for not taking responsibility for the warning letter.
"There are questions and concerns about the FDEP letter about the Wastewater plant on Cleveland. There were 14 violations in the letter, and the public needs answers on each of the 14."
He went on to list all 14 items brought up by the FDEP and asked the question: "Who is responsible?" Then he moved on to what he believes may be a public safety issue.
"There are dozens if not hundreds of people in the South Apopka area who utilize shallow wells and depend upon them as they've done for decades," Rankin said. "The health of these folks is at risk because of the problems at the wastewater plant."
Pastor Richard King expressed his concerns and made his points in the form of a question.
"I'm here tonight because I'm concerned with the wastewater plant. I'm not here to ask if there is a problem. I believe there is a problem. There are two things that you should address: Is it reversible and does it pose an immediate threat or down the road for the community?"
"Last year I addressed also addressed the contamination of the water," said Apopka resident Alexander Smith. "At that time I also asked if the contamination occurs, who would be responsible for cleaning up those wells? Because there is a health hazard called blue baby syndrome that could result in the death of infants. So my question is who will be responsible for cleaning up those wells for residents?
In total five of the eight public speakers commented on the Wastewater Plant, while dozens of concerned citizens in attendance murmured and whispered questions and observations amongst themselves during the comments.
Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer anticipated concerns about the wastewater plant and brought a team of City staff to potentially answer those concerns. His first man up was Public Services Director Jay Davoll.
"The layout of the wastewater plant is actually two plants that were theoretically approved to hold 4.5 million gallons," he explained. "For a time the plants held about three million gallons, but are now beginning to get closer to their capacity."
He went on to explain that The City of Apopka is under a consent order by the State of Florida to increase the efficiency and capacity of the wastewater plant, which went into effect in 2015.
According to Kilsheimer, in 2004 the consent order was put into place because the State of Florida passed the Wekiva Protection Act, which enabled the construction of the Wekiva Parkway. There was a total of 11 utilities - the City of Apopka being one of them that agreed to improve and expand their wastewater treatment capacity in order to comply with the Wekiva Protection Act.
The deadline to comply was 2011.
"But in 2007 the economy crashed and the FDEP did not stringently enforce the expansion and upgrade of wastewater treatment plants in the Wekiva Basin," Kilsheimer said.
That was before Kilsheimer took office as either a commissioner or mayor, but that was about to change.
"In December of 2014, the District Director of the FDEP personally called me and said it's time to get back on track now that the economy has turned. That's when we decided to get back on track and that's when we entered into the consent order."
Their answer to the consent order? One of the largest single municipal construction projects in Apopka’s history, a $61 million expansion of the wastewater treatment plant. It is the improvement and expansion of this plant that Kilsheimer and some on the City Council believes will this issue a short-term problem.
But in the short term, Kilsheimer addressed the question of public health.
"I want to make a strong point here. Number one, I spoke to the Director of the FDEP today... a man named Jeff Prather (also the author of the FDEP warning letter). He's told me this before and he repeated it today. I asked him specifically and directly - has the City of Apopka caused any public health issues with all the issues of the wastewater treatment? And his answer unequivocally is no."
According to Kilsheimer, the Channel 9 report focused on the most sensational issues the plant was experiencing but did not point out the comments on public safety that Kilsheimer had gotten from the FDEP. He hammered that point home in calling out the Orlando ABC affiliate.
"And this is despite... and I'm calling it like I see it... the overheated and quite honestly bad reporting by Channel 9. Channel 9 has gotten some of the story right, but they overstated the case dramatically and they have bamboozled you into thinking there is a public health issue."
To answer the question of health, Kilsheimer referenced another state department that agreed with the FDEP that there were no health concerns in relation to the wastewater plant. He also dispelled the connection of wastewater and drinking water.
"We don't answer to ourselves when it comes to this wastewater issue. We answer to the FDEP and we answer to the Florida Department of Health. Both the FDEP and FDH have unequivocally stated there is no health issue. There is also no connection to wastewater and the City's drinking water supply as some social media sites have tried to claim. No connection whatsoever."
He also answered the concerns of residents who have shallow wells that are nearby the plant.
"The question was asked about wells... shallow wells that are owned by residents near the facility. There are monitoring wells that are on the City of Apopka's property that would detect any increase in a number of constituents that are tested before it gets to any of the resident's wells. The monitoring wells show no increase with the exception of one that is near the tanks. The rest of the monitoring wells that are along the perimeter are well within the compliance parameters we have to meet."
Kilsheimer closed with a promise to those residents in attendance.
"Everyone has my personal commitment that we will comply with the FDEP and that we will protect public safety and the safety of our employees. We are trying to address these issues."
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