The predominantly black Wedgewood community organized a nearly two-hour, two-bus tour Tuesday of C&D landfills and borrow pits surrounding their neighborhood. They hoped this would make it immensely clear to media, state and local politicians, public officials and others what they struggle against.
Wedgewood residents insist they are being contaminated to death, although no scientific proof exists. But seeing is believing, right?
The first stop: An abandoned house with an untamed yard and windows boarded up from the inside. The owner Mrs. Myra had long since left complaining that activity at the mini-Grand Canyon-like pit behind her house made her sick. Now, the humongous hole slowly erodes her property, creeping closer and closer to her back door.
Next stop: Waste Management’s Longleaf Facility where a rectangular-shaped 9-acre mound with sloped sides rises out of a red clay-streaked, 27-acre hole in the ground. Covered in a black tarp that looks like a giant plastic garbage bag tossed out of hell by Hades himself, the hill contains unacceptable levels of contamination. The covering installed in January keeps dangerous chemicals from migrating.
Waste Management area engineer Brian Dolihite tries to paint a picture of a pristine green space once the scarred land is filled up but all the tour group hears is: “This will be here well beyond our lifetime. It will be there in perpetuity.”
Despite occasional downpours and trudging through muck, everyone shares umbrellas and soldiers on to two more active borrow pits. The entry to one displays cliffs of uncovered, undecipherable debris rising sharply out of the ground. A current guardian there, Tony Green, claims previous owners are responsible for the trash hills that sit behind a chain link fence lining one of the holes at the Marcus Pointe golf course.
However, Green admits there are “minor” pollution violations that the site is working out with the state Department of Environmental Protection and Escambia County regulators. “Everyone has violations,” he insists. “I got everything on every pit in town. Trust me. I got that just like you got your Bible.”
Last stop: The Rolling Hills C&D Recycling Center that towers like a lighthouse over the Wedgewood community. Residents complain health problems from cancer to trouble breathing are caused by the 100-plus acre site. They are on a mission to have it closed down and cleaned up—a seemingly impossible goal.
Waiting there for Escambia County Commission chairman Lumon May, Florida Rep. Mike Hill and the entourage of about 75 others is fried mullet, hush puppies, coleslaw and bottled water, as Waste Management, Asplundh and other dump trucks roll by to unload their C&D debris where a bulldozer pushes it around. The stench spoils some appetites and so does the mountain of garbage that blankets everyone’s field of vision.
Scott Miller, one of Rolling Hills owners, breaks out a bird’s view of the property and a handout labeled “Rolling Hills Green Industrial Center.” Together the two pieces of paper tout the location near U.S. Highway 29 and Interstate 10, a railroad line that runs to the Port of Pensacola, a potential new major county roadway bordering one side and other economic development necessities. Miller promises that residents may not like Rolling Hills now, but they will in five years when the property becomes a haven for business, not trash. “We don’t want to be in the landfill business,” Miller repeats like a broken down parrot.
The tour over a wave of outrage, disbelief, sadness and helplessness starts to sink in.
Jim Sanborn, a popular WCOA 1370 AM morning show host and newscaster, says if this happened to North Hill, no one would tolerate it. The middle-class folks in Wedgewood are tucked behind Bob Tyler Toyota off U.S. 29. “We gotta get rid of this,” he tells Commissioner May.
Rep. Hill became alerted to the neighborhood’s struggle earlier this summer. “This is shocking to me. It’s eye opening. I didn’t anticipate that this existed in our county. I will be in touch with DEP.” Hill vows to examine ways to strengthen environmental regulations.
May set the tone for the day telling everyone as they loaded the ECAT buses at about 9 a.m. that “this is a fact-finding process, not a finger-pointing exercise.” He vows to bring federal, state and county officials together to find solutions to relieve long-suffering Wedgewood residents. “This happened over 25 to 30 years and will not be solved in 25 to 30 days. We will continue to work for clean air, clean water and clean soil,” May promises.
When the buses finally unload and everyone filters into the new Marie K. Young Wedgewood Community Center, a bully pulpit seemingly magically appears and May, Hill and others make some remarks, followed by a few questions from the media.
But 65-year-old Judy Cook, a retired middle school teacher and chairwoman of Wedgewood’s homeowners association, wants to ask something. She may be five-foot-nothing but Cook’s grandmotherly looks belie her tenacity and toughness. She interjects her question for the community she has loved since moving there in 1977. When is she going to get results from air, ground and water testing from Rolling Hills and the surrounding area? The answer is “sometime.”
Cook corners an Independent News reporter later as the hubbub dies down: “We’ve been trying to bring this out into the open and we weren’t being heard. We have a neighborhood dying out here. All we want is to stop the unnecessary pill taking, the unnecessary dying.”