July 11th Alachua County meets with Wal-Mart Representatives
The proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter in Alachua is one step closer to fruition now that Alachua County has reached an agreement with Wal-Mart that satisfied three of the four Commissioners. Mike Byerly was the sole dissenting vote. Rodney Long was absent.
In a meeting on July 11th in Gainesville the Alachua County Commissioners heard comments from a variety of concerned citizens, hydrologists, cave divers, and engineers, before voting to allow the permit.
Among other things, Wal-Mart has agreed to keep fertilizers beneath a covered drive-through garden center, to utilize pervious pavement in the remote parking areas, to direct garden center floor drains to the sanitary sewer system, and to utilize native plants in its landscaping.
Bigger Issue than Just Wal-Mart
Chris Bird, Director of the Environmental Protection Department, acknowledged the sensitive nature of the area and said that the agreement can serve as a model for future development. He also talked about the potential impact on the High Springs water supply, which is downstream of the proposed Supercenter.
“This is a much bigger issue than just the Wal-Mart Supercenter,” Bird said. “We’ve got to start paying more attention and keeping track of development if we are serious about keeping the springs and the Santa Fe River clean and keeping it blue instead of green.”
While the agreement satisfied the concerns of the majority of Commissioners, it did not sit well with a number of people present at the meeting, many of whom were concerned with wording that gave Wal-Mart freedom to ‘consider’ participating in various pre- and post-development assessments of the Mill Creek Cave System.
Sally Dickinson brought attention to an item in the agreement that stated Wal-Mart would conduct ‘a weekly visual inspection of the storm water pond by a store employee.’
“What for? Will there be a report? To whom does that person report?” Dickinson asked the Commission. “It’s not written so that you could really verify any information.”
Dickinson suggested that the word ‘consider’ be dropped from the agreement.
Wet or Dry Ponds?
Another point of discussion concerned the use of wet versus dry retention ponds. Bird said that staff came to the conclusion that a dry system was preferred when used in conjunction with upstream pollution prevention techniques. Bird said that a wet basin would have to be artificially created and would require a liner. He likened it to building a swimming pool atop a fragile underground system.
“We think that with a wet system we might actually create sinkholes that would not potentially be there as much with a dry system,” he said.
Ecologist Buford Pruitt disagreed with this decision.
“Dry ponds on a Karst Plain are a bad idea,” Pruitt said. “I’m here tonight to tell you that the studies the agencies are basing their conclusions on are seriously flawed.”
Pruitt said that these studies were performed in 1978 and 1988 before the advent of modern storm water pond design and that more research is needed.
“So from my perspective I see government using inadequate research to justify an expedient, but still inadequate, storm water treatment method in the face of a general ground water quality decline.”
Pruitt said that when he was cave diving in the mid-1980s the walls of the underwater caves were white to cream colored.
“But now those walls are generally covered with a scummy brown bio-film,” Pruitt said. “And that’s all right for us people on city water. We have chlorination. But county residents relying on their own wells are drinking whatever sloughs off that scummy brown bio-film whenever they drink their own well water.”
Cave diver Cindy Butler showed a film of divers swimming through the underwater cave that lies beneath the proposed Wal-Mart site. She mentioned the issue of the large sinkhole that overlies the cave system, a system that carries the water from the Mill Creek.
“I just wanted to show you how fragile this room is that’s beneath the sinkhole,” Butler said. “My concern is that we haven’t anything in this agreement about a buffer zone around this sinkhole.”
She would like to see some best management practices in place to create a buffer zone.
“Large construction is going to destroy this very fragile area of this cave,” Butler said.
Steps to Prevent Contamination
Engineer Peter Sutch explained to the Board that Wal-Mart has gone above and beyond what was needed to meet the requirements of the permit.
“This whole system is basically a chain of different treatment techniques,” Sutch said. “The highest level that I’ve ever designed.”
He described the proactive steps that would help insure that pollutants would not enter the drinking water. Hazardous materials would be kept under cover, indigenous Florida plants would be used to minimize problems associated with fertilizers, and the automotive facility would be under roof.
Additionally, there would be trench drains in front of each bay to intercept water and direct it to an oil/water separator.
“If it gets out into the receiving body, there are skimmers at the outlet structure,” Sutch explained.
Then there is the dry retention pond encompassing nearly four acres. Sutch said that a large flat retention pond would allow the water to slowly percolate into the ground providing a treatment system that is greater than what is traditionally required. He said that early 20 percent of the site is pond area.
“This design is far and above, meets and exceeds, any water quality requirements mandated by the State,” Sutch said.
State Water Quality Standards Not Enough
Commissioner Mike Byerly expressed his concerns about the potential for oil and other hazardous materials to drip from automobiles in the parking lot and wind up in the retention pond, especially in light of the fact that pervious parking surfaces are left up to the discretion of Wal-Mart. He said that the standards set by the State are clearly not adequate.
“We know storm water, statewide, continues to deteriorate visibly. We’ve heard all this testimony of our streams turning green,” Byerly said. “So whatever it is we are doing it’s clearly not enough.”
Byerly was concerned with what would happen when – not if – a sinkhole opens within the retention pond and asked why skimmers couldn’t be installed to catch contaminants before they flow into the basin.
“What happens to the nasty stuff from the parking lot?” Byerly asked.
“The pollutants are not all going to rush down this void,” Sutch said.
“That’s one of the benefits of designing a pond that is flat and large in size.”
Sutch also reiterated the point that the pervious pavement would filter contaminants and minimize pollutants from getting to the basin.
Byerly was not satisfied.
“The issue of the pervious pavement, there’s no commitment to do anything here,” Byerly said. “Other than that at your discretion you’ll do some remote areas as determined by Wal-Mart, and of course even that doesn’t prevent things from getting down into the water. I guess there’s not much comfort here in what the affect of pervious pavement is going to do to keep things from the parking lot from winding up in the drinking water.”
High Springs Commissioner Kirk Eppenstein spoke as a downstream affected party expressing his concern that the High Springs water supply, as well as future well fields between Alachua and High Springs, would be contaminated if pollutants were to get into the system.
In recent developments, the city of High Springs had requested an administrative hearing to challenge the permit. However, the Suwannee River Water Management District denied the request because it was filed beyond the deadline.