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Red tide is killing sea life: Where do all the dead fish go?

Pinellas County has been collecting tons of marine debris.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Pinellas County has collected more than 1,400 tons of dead sea life from red tide. Trucks are then hauling all the debris to the county's waste-to-energy (WTE) facility and landfill. 

About 15 percent of the debris collected will then be incinerated in the WTE facility, which converts it into energy. Trucks haul in the debris, dump it, and large machines move all of the waste into incinerators.

"We prefer to send all the red tide debris to our waste-to-energy facility, however, if the red tide debris contains sand, it's not great for our equipment. It's a big machine, so it has to go to the landfill," Stephanie Watson said. She is the recycling and outreach program manager for the Pinellas County Department of Solid Waste. 

What can be incinerated gets converted into energy. Watson said the facility burns enough garbage each day to power the equivalent of 45,000 homes. The facility can handle up to 3,150 tons a day, and sometimes a little more. According to Watson, on average, the facility receives about 120 tons each day. 

The debris that cannot be burned goes to a landfill. About 85 percent of the debris collected will be buried in the landfill to help control any odors. 

"Our solid waste disposal complex is 700 acres and it sits on what we call a 'clay bathtub.' There is clay material underneath and on all sides, so all waste or water we receive here on site will remain on-site," Watson said. "That's the way we protect our ground and surface water." 

While there is a cost to the county to run the entire complex, there is a tipping fee waiver in place for municipalities dropping off marine debris. Private haulers and other non-municipalities do have to pay the fee. 

If you spot any large marine life, such as turtles, dolphins, or manatees, the Pinellas County Department of Solid Waste asks you to contact the fish and wildlife commission at 888-404-3922. 

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