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East Gainesville neighbors fight the expansion of a landfill in their backyard – again

Above: Listen to a version of this story that aired on WUFT-FM.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection signaled in November intent to issue Florence Recycling and Disposal – which receives construction and demolition debris – a permit to nearly double in height.

The owner, Paul Florence, said he needed the expansion to accommodate expected debris in the coming years as Gainesville rapidly developed.

To the west of the landfill is Showers of Blessings church. To the north, an organic farm that has provided produce to the county’s schools. To the south, Prairie View Elementary School, Paynes Prairie and Boulware Springs.

More than a dozen neighbors petitioned for an administrative hearing, pausing the approval.

It’s history repeating.

View the video below to see where the landfill is situated.

https://youtu.be/8h05T4R8pCU

They successfully fought the same fight to overturn the same permit four years ago, and said it goes back much farther than that.

Most who can stand in their yards and see the landfill through the trees are Black.

Majority Black East Gainesville, like communities of color worldwide, has been used as the city’s dumping ground for as long as living residents remember.

In 2012, the facility landfilled just over 11,000 tons. Last year, they landfilled more than three times that amount.

The development in Gainesville is pushing out Black residents from their neighborhoods.

A five-story student apartment complex took over a lot in Seminary Lane where affordable housing units used to sit.

The homes lining Porters Quarters now face Savion Park Luxury Apartments residents jogging around a new fountain-spouting pond.

The University of Florida is expanding, too.

All that construction debris has to go somewhere.

For decades, “somewhere” has been the Black neighborhoods of East Gainesville.

The debate

As a child, 54-year-old Johnell Gainey remembers playing on the land next to his house, surrounded by wildlife. Now, he scrambles up the dirt embankment and looks out over the landfill and the growling tractors that trawl its surface.

“I'm taking less than 70 paces and I'm at that landfill,” Gainey said. “What is it doing to me?

“I have elderly parents that live here. What is it doing to them? What has it done to them?

“We don't know.”

Florence bought the landfill in 1995 after it was foreclosed upon.

The previous owner did not comply with a civil penalty and consent order that followed a string of citations by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The landfill was always supposed to hold only approved construction and demolition debris, things considered non-hazardous and insoluble in water.

The former operator was dumping household, office and even medical waste.

Gainey remembers cabinets, fridges and old vehicles piling up.

Under Florence, the landfill was brought up to code. He fills and then temporarily caps five acres at a time. He operates a transfer facility down the road to prevent inappropriate materials from making it to the landfill.

Still, from 2008 – when the currently used inspection report begins to appear in Florida Department of Environmental Protection records – until 2013, and again in 2020, the landfill failed one item on the inspection: “Do the results of the water quality testing suggest there may be adverse impacts to water quality from the operation of the solid waste facility?”

Panagioti Tsolkas founded the Gainesville-Area Action for Environmental Justice and used to live in the neighborhood. He organized the petition – again.

It listed a multitude of issues that might be caused by expanding the debris mound, the years it's in operation, and its stormwater ponds and surface management systems: noise; airborne dust and debris; odors; groundwater contamination; migration of the existing pollution plume; increased garbage truck traffic and risk of accidents; pollution of the two nearby state parks.

Tsolkas argued the landfill was grandfathered in from “an era of Jim Crow zoning.” Its construction predates the current modern standard for landfill operation. It's not lined with anything to protect the groundwater. Its location would never be approved today.

It violates the executive order, the petition said, which directs federal agencies to “address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low income populations,” and the Civil Rights Act.

The petitioners are just asking for a hearing – a chance to give more critical feedback, to provide their own scientists, to ask harder questions and get answers.

Tsolkas said they asked the city to step in and the county commission to reconsider their approval.

The county spokesperson declined on behalf of all the commissioners to comment, calling it an ongoing legal matter. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection also declined to answer questions, beyond giving a basic timeline of events. Florence’s daughter declined on his behalf to speak, too.

The last time the expansion was brought before the county, many neighbors spoke in Florence’s defense. They said his business was well-run. They called him considerate, respectful and helpful – a good neighbor.

One neighbor said when she told Florence she had a party that afternoon, he stopped the tractors so the sound wouldn’t interrupt.

One of his employees, who lives in southeast Gainesville, said he had worked for mega corporations before. Unlike them, he said, Florence went out of his way to keep things from getting into the environment.

“If you took one of the Fortune 500 companies and put them in the same position, they would railroad right through the people” the employee said. “This guy actually cares.”

“This is a policy issue,” another neighbor rebutted. “It doesn’t really matter who the owner is. It happens to be that he’s a nice person. But the things we’re speaking to are bigger than Mr. Florence.”

At the meeting podium, Florence scratched his long white ponytail.

He also wants good things on the east side, he said. He does his best to recycle as much as he can. He keeps reasonable hours and shuts down any time someone calls about the noise.

“I don’t know what more I could do.”

They’re not required to have a liner, he added. They test the groundwater regularly. (It’s passed inspection on the reports since 2014.)

And if Florence’s facility was closed, his defenders argued, the debris would have to be carted 50 miles farther. Wouldn’t it be more environmentally friendly to prolong the use of this already existing landfill as long as possible?

Another neighbor responded with a suggestion that provoked smiles and a smattering of applause.

“Could we do this in, say, the Millhopper neighborhood? Would that be OK?”

The joke was obvious: Landfills aren’t typically built near wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

The path of least resistance

“Dumps and landfills, you always want to put them in places with the least resistance,” Gainey said. “And southeast Gainesville has been the least resistant.”

It’s not because they don’t care, Gainey made clear. They just don’t have the resources to fight back.

“People don’t have time to do it because they’re so caught up in trying to survive,” he said. “‘I can’t miss a day at work to go down and protest, because my kids got to eat.’”

The term “path of least resistance” comes from the work of Robert Bullard, who studied the long-standing pattern of dumping waste in Black neighborhoods.

It’s just one example of environmental racism, which Bullard said combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for white people while shifting industry costs to people of color.

Wayne Fields knows this well. He’s lived in southeast Gainesville for 60 years.

As a child, he lived a mile down the road from Gainey’s home, near the schools for Black children – and another landfill. 

He thinks landfill is too generous a word for what he calls a city dump, where he believes they tossed chemicals and hazardous waste. He remembers a horrible stench pervading the surrounding neighborhoods. They boiled their water before drinking it.

Williams Elementary had a playground just feet away from the dump, Fields said. The smell and dirt would cover them after kickball.

“Our parents used to say, ‘You all are going to be glowing,’” Fields said.

“And no one took it serious because these were the cream of the crop, so to speak. The influential, the educated, the people who had such a positive influence on everyone in the community. And we’re living and going to school at a landfill.”

Fields’ mother, Geraldine Miller, was a beloved chorus director at Lincoln High. His stepfather was the legendary Jerry C. Miller, director of the band. His biological father was Julius Gazelle Fields, who served as a dentist to Martin Luther King.

Bullard’s research found that since Black people of all income levels tend to live in close proximity to each other, the question of environmental justice can’t be boiled down to a poverty issue. Rather, these neighborhoods were considered to be throwaway communities by those making environmental and industrial decisions.

“And the absolute worst thing that could have happened, happened,” Fields said.

One by one, Fields said, he watched his neighbors die of diseases.

Diabetes. Congestive heart failure. Parkinson’s. Dementia.

No one died of old age, he said.

Later research showed a link between pollution and increased risk of those diseases.

That landfill has since been covered over. The schools remain.

His father fought alongside King for equity in St. Augustine in the 1960s.

Fields continues the fight in 2023 in East Gainesville.

“I’m tired,” he said. Then he laughed, recalling that he had never heard his parents complain.

The fight

Alison Adams, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, studies how communities organize around environmental justice.

She said while media spectacles tend to work against corporations, they’re less effective against the government. Instead, institutional avenues work better: lawsuits, lobbying, letter writing, and petitions like this one.

If those methods don’t work, Adams said, neighbors often shift from feeling like a participant in these institutions to feeling like outsiders, and may resort to media spectacles instead.

She said she understands the neighbors’ skepticism that the landfill is safe.

“I have seen tons and tons of cases in my own research,” she said, “where people are coming in doing tests and saying, ‘It’s fine.’”

But how far down in the soil are they testing? she asked. Are those levels really OK? And if someone is not a scientist, how can they interpret these reports for themselves?

“You’re basically almost putting blind trust into people that may or may not have a conflict of interest in telling you it’s safe,” Adams said. “The stakes are high.”

It’s a problem without a clean solution.

The garbage has to go somewhere.

Still, Adams said, “Nobody deserves having a landfill in their backyard.”

Gainey thinks it should at least be spread out – establish landfills in other areas of town so everyone shares the burden of collective waste.

“Deal with some of my crap sometime. That'd be fair.”

Under a blue February sky, neighbors watch the dust rise off the landfill, and the trucks drive down their street.

They wait to see whether the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will grant their request to be heard.

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.