HAINES CITY – City staff and Florida Department of Environmental Protection staff formalized a contract on March 12 to begin the process of transforming a former fertilizer plant into a new park.

The contract gave FDEP staff permission to enter the property and initiate the process to clean the property so that it would be suitable for public use some day.

Former Haines City commissioner Don Mason is a corporate officer for a company associated with Polk County Fertilizer Company. Mason and corporate staff donated the property to the City of Haines City in September 2019 “as is,” and the Haines City Community Redevelopment Agency closed on the property in December.

According to Haines City Communications and Marketing Manager Stephanie Snively, FDEP staff will move forward to prepare an executable testing timeline, which will be scheduled for late April/early May and completed following the removal of the building.

Following demolition, city administration will not recommend any redevelopment activity of the site until after testing is completed and the FDEP findings report is reviewed by administration and presented to the elected officials.

“In an effort to expedite the process, the (Haines City) Parks & Recreation Department elected to execute a mini-master plan for the property,” Snively said.

“Parks and Recreation Director Terrell Griffin says several options are being explored during this conceptual phase,” she continued. “The initial proposal is to construct facilities and multipurpose fields, which may include a place for soccer, football, lacrosse or quidditch to be played. Additional amenities will be added as funding becomes available, including possible sensory-rich playgrounds, allowing children of all abilities to grow together.”

The heavy industrial plant at the site dominated the Oakland neighborhood of Haines City since the 1880s. From 1936 until around 1989, fertilizer was blended on site. The FDEP public database documents an elaborate history of pollution incidents on site which have required intervention over the years.

For example, in 1989 there was a fire at the plant. Plant owners purchased sludge from the City of Houston to manufacture fertilizer. The sludge was unstable when it arrived by truck. A nearby resident noticed the truck smoldering overnight and the Haines City Fire Department sprayed around 20,000 gallons of water on the truck to extinguish the burning sludge, which polluted the ground.

A month later the portion of land where the fire took place was sold to New Mt. Zion Missionary Church for use as a church parking lot.

The FDEP investigation of the fire further revealed that trucks carrying fertilizer to the plant used to get washed out on-site and that washed water collected in a retention pond. Periodically, company staff pumped water from the retention pond on the ground that is now used as a church parking lot. The FDEP investigation revealed that contaminated storm water was flowing into nearby low lying areas of the Oakland neighborhood. FDEP staff sent a warning letter to Polk County Fertilizer Company in 1993.

In 1994, a study was done on the church parking lot, which showed groundwater and soil concentrations of lead and cadmium. The FDEP investigation closed in 2002. Shortly after, Polk County Fertilizer Company started operating under the names Greenleaf and Second Venture. FDEP monitoring wells associated with the fire remained open through 2007.

In 2012, Haines City resident Janet Smith filed a complaint with FDEP, alleging that stacks of fertilizer were polluting the ground on site. By then, fertilizer was no longer being blended on site. Investigators determined that Smith's concerns were unfounded and that the stacks of fertilizer were actually stacks of decorative rocks.

Haines City Vice Mayor Ann Huffman said Smith's concerns are rarely unfounded.

Whether the claims were unfounded or not, city staff are hopeful that the site can be salvaged and made into something to benefit the community.

Contact Charles A. Baker III at cbaker@d-r.media.