Local News

County asphalt plant still paving long road

SEBRING - The jury may still be out on whether Highlands County should have bought its own $3.3 million asphalt plant in 2008, but road and bridge supervisor Kyle Green has made his peace with it.

"Maybe that's a good way to say it. It's working better for us than what was initially thought. It's not saving us $10 a ton, that's not true. But when you factor in everything," Green said Wednesday, "I've been in involved when we couldn't get asphalt when we needed it."

Before the plant fired up in 2008, a controversy already glowed over whether a county should get into a private business.

Local and state asphalt pavers lobbied commissioners against the idea. Senators and representatives tried to prohibit local governments from buying or operating an asphalt or concrete plant. Two county commissioners wanted to close and sell the plant.

And despite an idea that the county would make money on the plant, a 2010 court clerk's audit said it lost $267,801.

An operating report sent to the Department of Environmental Protection last week said the plant operates about four hours a day, two days a week. However, about 48 percent of those operating hours come in March, April and May, when the ground warms up and crews patch the winter damage. Only 5 percent of its operating hours are in September, October and November, according to the DEP report.

The plant produces all the asphalt for Highlands County, and it's also sold to Highlands Hammock State Park, Sun N' Lake, Spring Lake and all three municipalities.

Back in March 2009, engineering consultant PBSJ touted the plant with a March 2009 report: "One man's trash is another man's treasure... The plant burns the methane gas produced by the landfill to heat the aggregate to make the asphalt that will pave the county's roads."

Well, sort of.

Turns out, methane corrodes the valves that collect the landfill gas, so diesel is the primary fuel. Green hasn't measured how much methane is used, but he believes that methane saves 20 to 25 percent.

"On a good day," Green said.

Methane, which emanates from rotting garbage, is an acidic gas. When then-Solid Waste Director Ken Wheeler sold - critics say oversold - the commissioners on an asphalt plant in 2007, it was always part of his plan to buy a methane scrubber to filter out the destructive agents.

"But to be quite honest, I don't anticipate that we're ever going to do that," Green said. "Just because of the cost involved. We've sat down with a few suppliers, and to set up what we need with pressurized tanks, it would cost anywhere from $1 to 2 million."

Old roofing shingles stay out of the landfill and go into the hot mix, Green said. "We are proactive on utilizing recycled materials: construction concrete, roofing shingles, reclaimed asphalt."

Recycled shingles saved $172,000, the 2010 clerk's report said. The plant also recycled asphalt and saved $271,000. Recycled concrete instead of mined limestone or granite saved another $4,000 for a $446,000 total.

"It solves some major issues," Commissioner Jack Richie said in 2010. "There are no new problems, and there are only a couple of minor problems."

"Should we keep it?" Richie said. "That's a question we are still analyzing."

And he is still thinking about it, Richie said Wednesday. "There's a lot we still have to look at."

Can the county make asphalt cheaper than it can buy it?

"I would say cost wise it is about the same," Green said. "Where we are saving money is transport. I can't say we can produce it cheaper than a private-sector plant. Our highest savings is our trucking cost. We would have to truck it from Winter Haven or Lake Wales."

Better Roads Inc. in Venus is in the asphalt business. "We've asked them to take part in annual bids, but they haven't responded," Green said.

"We are trying to save money and cut costs as much as the requirements allow," Green said. "And we have the capacity to go out and make asphalt, make as much or as little as we want to. The savings for us are a big, big positive."