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State looks to shut down mulch site

By CHUCK BALLARO - | Apr 14, 2021

news@breezenewspapers.com

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is asking a judge to shut down a North Fort Myers recycling facility officials say has been the site of a series of fires often visible from I-75 near the Bayshore Road exit.

Bayshore Fire & Rescue has responded to more than two dozen since the beginning of the year and fire officials say MW Horticulture, at 17160 East St., meanwhile, has been operating without a permit since the state denied them one last December.

Bayshore Fire Chief Larry Nisbet said fires have been pretty much continuous since the mulch material onsite has been heating up naturally and decomposing.

“We’re pretty close to a year that we’ve been fighting this. The problem is that it’s covered in dirt and we don’t have heavy equipment to move it,” Nisbet said. “We told them a year ago they had to have 50 percent of their material moved offsite within six months. They haven’t done any work on the site for some time.”

MW Horticulture opened its North Fort Myers location in 2015 as a place for people to deposit yard waste, which MW, in turn, would turn into compost and mulch.

Following Hurricane Irma in 2017, the plant saw a large upsurge in debris drop-offs.

Nisbet contends the site was only supposed to be a relay station, where people could drop off material to be hauled to the south yard. Nisbet claims MW misrepresented that.

MW Horticulture, meanwhile, has said the county prevented the proper operations needed to deal with the post-storm deposits.

The natural decomposition of the waste subsequently caused heat, which in turn created the fire hazard and so multiple mulch fires, some big, some small, burning or smoldering.

Fire officials contend the problems pre-date the storm.

“We issued fire code violations prior to Irma. What we got was ‘that’s the first we’ve heard of it’ and we had to get them into compliance,” Nisbet said. “We’ve shut them down several times to get them into compliance. We don’t want to shut anyone down. But they would get into compliance three to six months down the road and we would start the whole thing over.”

In 2018, after numerous fires and continuous smoldering, a hearing examiner ordered the business to move the debris or face daily fines.

The following year, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners filed a lawsuit against MW to bring them into compliance with regulations after complaints of noxious odors.

This past year, Lee County filed a foreclosure lien against the business, which was later denied a permit, setting the stage for what’s happening now.

FDEP issued provided the following statement and a copy of its complaint:

“The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been attempting to bring MW Horticulture Recycling Facility Inc. into compliance since early 2018, when violations of the 62-709 Florida Administrative Code were discovered at the facility. DEP provided compliance assistance to the facility for eight months after which it was determined that formal enforcement action was necessary because of the lack of progress in achieving compliance with the rule.

In August 2019, the facility was denied registration renewal.

Under Florida Statute, the facility had the right to challenge the denial, and they did, allowing them to continue operations until a Final Order was issued. On March 5 & 6, 2020, the challenge of the registration denial was heard by an Administrative Hearing Judge. Both DEP and facility representatives testified at the hearing.

On Dec. 15, 2020, DEP issued a Final Order adopting the Administrative Law Judge’s recommended order to deny the registrations for MW Horticulture and MW Horticulture North Fort Myers. For background, yard trash recycling facilities are not allowed to operate in the state of Florida without valid registration from the department.

MW Horticulture has continued to operate since that time, despite requirements to cease operations. As a result, DEP filed a new action on April 2, 2021, to enforce the Final Order. In addition to closing these non-registered facilities, the action requires civil penalties and clean-up activities to be conducted at the sites…

DEP is committed to enforcing Florida’s environmental laws and holding environmental polluters accountable. We will continue to share information as we progress through this enforcement process.”

Complaint(1)

Nisbet said the MW situation has been a drain on their system, their personnel and is damaging their equipment.

“We’re getting other emergency dispatches while we’re tied up with their dealing with nuisance fires,” Nisbet said. “It’s not an emergency because it’s not endangering anything, but it’s smoking out the adjacent businesses. And it can create problems for those driving on I-75.”

Denise Houghtaling, owner of MW Horticulture, did not immediately return calls for comment.

Following the filing of the foreclosure lawsuit, MW issued a statement laying much of the blame on the county, saying it issued orders that prevented proper disposal of the debris, such as grinding, and also refused to let them cover the debris with soil to prevent the fires.

It has filed a counter suit.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement by the The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which also provided a copy of its complaint.