by Tim Gilmore, 10/1/2022
1. Moonlight on the Sand Dunes
Teenagers jumped dune buggies off the hills of bead-sized sands, spinning their wheels in the slippage and scree, shouting their thrills to the winds, the sun and the moon. When the sun blazed hottest, it roasted their faces and necks, their arms and legs, from the sky but also from off the dunes.
From pine planks, kids made duneboards, surfboards the size of skateboards, and coated the undersides with wax. Fathers stood in the sands, drank beer and fired rifles.
This landscape formed as residue from Humpreys Gold Mine, named for Humphreys Gold Corporation of Colorado, which mined to a depth of 50 feet minerals like titanium, zirconium, ilminite and rutile. Mining operations lasted from 1940 to the late ’50s and the lakes and dunes they left behind became the playgrounds of nearby children in the 1960s.
Occasionally a buggier drove into the sights of a drunk dad firing a rifle from World War II. When a college student named Jeanne Yates was kidnapped at the newly developed Regency Square Mall, murdered, and dumped in the sands, the crowds at the dunes thinned out.
In the early ’70s, Arlyn Dockery used to drive home from work down Monument Road late at night and see the moon shining down on the dunes, strangely and incongruously lovely, and think how the white sand looked like snow.
2. Dirty Secrets, Sludge and Sedges
The trucks came like dirty secrets under cover of night and dumped sewage in the pure white of the ancient but depleted sands. Arlyn remembers the odor. The sewage was sterilized, but still it stunk in the wind and bred flies and the dead dunes sprang to life with sedges and grasses and blooms sprung from stalks sprung from seeds dropped by birds.
The stench angered residents of old black communities and new white suburbs. Headlines referred to “sludge,” the semisolid waste refined from processing sewage. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District had been packaging and selling a fertilizer called Milorganite, a portmanteu of Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen, obtained from sewage sludge treatment, since the 1920s.
Jacksonville already made national news for dangerous pollution levels, its menacing and stupefying stink emanating from paper mills and chemical plants and the infamous Buckman Street Sewage Treatment Plant. In his 2004 book Jacksonville: The Consolidation Story, historian Jim Crooks writes of Buckman’s woes. “Built in the 1950s to handle residential wastes, it was now overwhelmed with untreated industrial wastes, particularly from the Anheuser-Busch brewery. The facility was understaffed, inadequately maintained, and subject to frequent breakdowns.” The fact that Jacksonville had one of the lowest tax rates in the country meant it often struggled to find funds for basic human services. Sewage lines collapsed across the city without being rebuilt. Now sludge stories associated with the Buckman plant made headlines across the country.On May 25, 1977, 19 year old Dennis Gary Sneed, a Tennessean in Jacksonville under contract to help dismantle systems in the treatment plant, passed out from breathing methane and drowned in sludge. Another worker was hospitalized from swallowing sludge, two others from breathing methane.
Just after Christmas 1978, The Fort Lauderdale News headlined an Associated Press story, “Jacksonville Sludge Dirties Cars.” A newswire photo showed the word “Pollution” etched in thick dust on the back of a small sedan. The caption read, “Message in sticky yellow dust on car at Jacksonville docks is clear.” In fact, 22,000 imported cars on the city docks had been damaged by iron carbonyl in the air from Buckman’s sludge treatment system. Across Jacksonville, fecal residue rained.
“The city,” reported the AP, “wants to bypass the sludge treatment system and dump the residue into the St. Johns River temporarily, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has refused permission.” In the late 1960s, 20 million tons of raw sewage a day flowed into the St. Johns and Jacksonville was responsible for 90 percent of all untreated sewage in Florida waterways. Yet by 1977, Mayor Hans Tanzler, six feet six inches tall and ever the showman, went skiing downtown on the river with a ski team from the Cypress Gardens theme park to demonstrate how his administration had cleaned up the city’s waters.
3. No Such Place as Away
The Florida Times-Union would politely call the ensuing war between nearby communities and city agencies “the Regency Sludge Dispute.” A June 10th story said Arlington residents in the Regency area could “put away their fly swatters.” Nothing else to worry about, nothing to see here, nothing to smell. Duval Septic Company, whom the City had contracted to dump sludge on the dunes, would no longer be dumping “undigested sewage.”
Clouds of flies like an Old Testament plague had descended upon new suburban residents grilling burgers in back yards. Frank Ellis of Duval Septic had a message for those suburbanites. From now on, he refused to haul untreated sewage from Buckman. Until recently, Buckman had given him “the finest sludge I’ve ever hauled.”
When T-U staff writer Ray Huard interviewed him, Ellis was “standing in the middle of a field of ‘good’ sludge” out in the sands. Duval Septic had recently dumped 1.5 million gallons of raw untreated sewage on the Regency dunes and he could understand why residents were upset. “You smell this and then you smell that, and oh boy,” he said.
Good sludge still stunk, but Ellis said the smell “doesn’t last long” and “isn’t detectable from any distance.” He took pride in his company and the people who lived near the dunes had hurt his feelings a bit. “While Ellis said he fully understood why Arlington residents complained about the smell,” Huard wrote, “he said he was a little upset by those complaints.”
But the battle had just begun. Black residents in the Lone Star community near where Lone Star Road entered the dunes raised their voices even if they were skeptical of resolution. The City dumping sewage on their doorstep was a new chapter in an old, old story for them.
Then on Valentine’s Day, two years later, Dr. Melvin Newman of the City’s Environmental Protection Board made the rather obvious statement that dumping 100,000 gallons of raw sludge on the dunes every day was probably a “health hazard.” Meanwhile, the problem of corrosive sludge fallout on the industrial waterfront proceeded.
The City transferred waste from other districts to the Buckman plant for further treatment and concentration. Shipping waste to Buckman helped the district that contained the Anheuser-Busch plant meet its water quality standards, while hauling the sludge to the dunes helped Buckman meet odor pollution abatement requirements. And while there’s no such place as “away,” the Regency dunes seemed as close to “away” as existed inside the consolidated city-county’s nearly 900 square miles.
J.E. Davis, chairman of the grocery chain Winn-Dixie, patriarch of one of the city’s wealthiest families, had initially said the sludge could be dumped on the family’s Dee Dot Ranch, tens of thousands of acres southeast toward the beaches. When Davis told Ellis of Duval Septic the sludge was too acidic, however, the company decided to dump it northwest of Regency Square Mall on 850 acres it leased from Stockton, Whatley, Davin and Co., the city’s most successful and exclusive real estate developers. Those forced to smell the sludge off Lone Star lacked the clout of the Davises and Stocktons.
4. Sludge War
To say the sludge contained anything “detrimental,” Ellis said, was “ridiculous.” Furthermore, though he’d previously said the odor dissipated quickly and traveled only short distances, he was “now using bulldozers to bury loads of raw sludge at the Regency Square site.”
By April of ’79, Mayor Jake Godbold had “stepped into the sludge dispute,” threatening to cancel Duval Septic’s “lucrative contract,” the T-U reported. Godbold had sent Duval Septic a letter saying he’d ordered workers at the Buckman plant “not to pump any more sludge into the company’s tankers until it picked an alternate site.”
Wayne Ellis, Duval Septic’s chief counsel and son of the company president, asked where the sludge was supposed to go if it couldn’t be dumped in the dunes. He threatened a lawsuit for “breach of contract,” yet promised to make “every effort to go along with” the mayor’s proposal. He also said no competition for hauling the sludge existed: “We’re the only company in town that can haul it, by the way.”
Meanwhile Environmental Protection Agency Chief Analyst Don Gibbons said channeling sewage into sludge treatment systems diverted dangerous pollutants into sludge. “You simply remove the pollutants from the water and return it to the sludge,” he said. “You’re concentrating the problem.” He warned that heavy metals like chromium, mercury and lead could easily enter the water table.
“No matter what you do with waste, you can’t throw it away,” said Don Ferguson, environmental engineer for Jacksonville’s St. Regis Paper Company. Burning it pollutes the air. Dumping it in creeks and streams and the river kills all the fish and the birds that eat the fish. Burying concentrated human waste in the sand dunes might filter it down to the water table the region’s whole population relied on.
Godbold, whose sky-high approval ratings spanning the full demographic and political spectrum reflected uncanny diplomatic abilities for a good-ole-boy mayor who grew up in public housing, worked quickly and quietly with business leaders and state and federal officials. As Mike Tolbert says in his 2019 book Jake!, Godbold worked out a compromise with the EPA to transfer monies that would have been paid in fines to an environmental trust for the city and persuaded Anheuser-Busch to reorganize its own waste treatment to ease the industrial load it sent to Buckman. A fuller conquest of the city’s infamous odor problems awaited the administration of the mayor’s successor, Tommy Hazouri, but Godbold won the sludge wars.
5. Honey Wagons and Muscle Cars
People who grew up in suburban Regency in the 1970s remember the Nurti-Gro fertilizer tankers. Word had it the mining operations had so depleted the already nutrient-poor Florida sands that the tankers were meant to bring back life.
Urban legends proliferated like the verdure that grew from the sludge. They said marijuana grew in accidental forests from countless seeds flushed down toilets, that corn mazes shot up and flourished overnight.
“The homes out there cannot have shallow wells,” librarian Cindy Mathieson says four decades later. So many addresses across this vast city that’s mostly county still can’t access city water and newer houses built where Humphreys Gold Mine once stripped the soils sit atop filthy history.
Bob Glenn can still smell the sludge, can still feel the fecal matter crawl up his nose. In the late ’70s, he worked for a diesel repair shop on Lane Avenue on the Westside, cleaning and maintaining the trucks and equipment for Duval Septic. The hotter the weather, the worse the stench.
“I replaced the Clark log skidder that pulled the disc on those dunes to mix the sludge into the sand,” he says. Loggers use skidders to drag downed trees from where they’re first cut to landing sites. Tramp trails along skidding sites in the Pacific Northwest more than a century ago probably formed the original “skid rows.” Maintenance workers called the Jacksonville log skidders “honey wagons,” Glenn says, “but trust me, it didn’t smell like honey.”
Norman Peterson recently retired as a City of Jacksonville building inspector. He remembers Nutri-Gro tanker trucks and how “the sewage that couldn’t be dumped into the river was pumped into the dunes.” Just before he retired, he visited new housing on the old dunes at the end of Lone Star Road just west of the new Southside Connecter. These sands were the last vestiges of Humphreys Gold Mine.
It surprised him how gray and dirty the sand looked. The dunes had been clean and pristine. He wondered how “they could get away with building on the dunes I played on as soon as I could ride a Schwinn Sting-Ray bike.”
The dunes were never natural Florida formations. Now they’re barely memories. The cheap construction of new condos and townhouses and two- and three- bedroom houses stands atop the decline even of the suburbs of three and four decades ago.
Then again, Linda Flynn, who now lives in New Jersey but grew up in the Arlingwood neighborhood immediately west of the new Mill Creek North, a subdivision built where the septic haulers drove into the dunes at the end of Lone Star Road, thinks something more than memory of those years remains. She fell in love, or thought she did, there in those dunes, where, on nights the stink waned, her high school sweetheart drove her in his muscle car. The relationship didn’t last, except in the form of the child those nights produced, who she swears, along with his father’s genetics, must have incorporated, through the sludge in the air, the concentrated feculence of the adolescence she tried so desperately to leave behind.