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Toxic mess may stay because polluters won't pay

By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002

All aboard!

All aboard!

Welcome to Florida Toxic Tours, your expert guide to some of the nastiest polluted sites left behind by corporate America. Remember our motto:

If it wreaks, if it stinks,

If it's bubbling up your sinks,

Take Toxic Tours, and leave the driving to us!

Thanks for riding with us aboard our new tour bus, the Flying Contaminant. As your tour guide, I'll instruct you when to don your gas masks and, for you more adventurous folks, when to slip into your moon suits.

On our ride today across the Sunshine State, we'll visit five toxic waste sites languishing in the Tampa Bay area and Central Florida, the Panhandle and southeast Florida.

These five sites are very special. They are Florida's portion of the 33 Superfund toxic sites nationwide where cleanup work has been either halted or delayed because the Bush administration is holding back funding, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general.

You're in luck, folks. The specific names of these 33 sites only became public last week. The administration denies that it is abandoning work on the 33 sites but promises only that their cleanup "will be funded to some extent."

For those a bit fuzzy about Superfund, here's a refresher. Congress created a trust fund that became known as Superfund in 1980. The fund paid for cleaning toxic sites called "orphans" -- where the polluter cannot be identified, or is unable or refuses to pay. Money for Superfund came from a tax levied mostly on oil and chemical companies. After all, those industries are most prone to leaving behind nasty messes.

But seven years ago, Congress allowed the Superfund tax to expire. And Superfund's balance is shrinking fast, from its high of $3.8-billion in 1996 to a projected total of just $28-million next year.

Isn't it funny that both the Reagan and Bush administrations of the 1980s endorsed polluters-should-pay taxes to finance Superfund. President Clinton pushed Congress to renew the tax but the Republican-led House said no.

Now the current Bush administration, so busy preaching for greater corporate responsibility, continues to oppose reviving the polluter-pays tax.

For fiscal 2003, President Bush wants to pay for Superfund orphan cleanups with $700-million from general taxes and $529-million from the trust fund.

But soon the trust fund will be depleted, even though Superfund work will be far from done.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Bush administration swear they will keep spending close to current levels for site cleanups. So where will all this money come from?

Unless Congress revives the tax on industry, funds for future cleanup efforts at orphan sites must come from general tax revenue. Yes, tour members. That means your pockets.

Which is why we're so glad to have you with us on Florida Toxic Tours today. We know you want not only to see -- but smell and taste -- exactly what your tax dollars will be spent on.

Fellow travelers, here's just a tantalizing glimpse of the stalled cleanups at each of the five toxic Superfund sites you'll see today!

-- Southern Solvents, Tampa: West of Gunn Highway, this 3.6-acre, Linebaugh Avenue site in Carrollwood was home to a company that distributed chemicals to area dry cleaning businesses for eight years. It closed in 1985. EPA officials added this site to its National Priorities List for cleanup in 2000 after it was found the chemicals tetrachloroethylene and perchloroethylene had leaked from company storage tanks, permeated the soil and contaminated the site's water supply. Because Southern Solvents is now defunct and cannot be charged for the cleanup, this qualifies as an orphan site.

-- Tower Chemical, Clermont: Located in Lake County, about a dozen miles west of Orlando, chemicals from this plant site -- chlorobenzilate, dichlorobenzophenone and dicofol -- seeped into the Floridan aquifer through a sinkhole and into nearby Lake Apopka (where mutant alligators were found en masse in the mid-1990s) by way of a creek. Tower Chemical operated from 1957 until closing in 1980. It produced chemicals used by the citrus industry to kill rust mites, then later extracted chemicals from the pesticide DDT. This site is a couple of hundred feet from several houses and about a half-mile from a subdivision of more than 350 homes. Ten years ago, the EPA halted cleanup at this site, saying the danger was done. Oops.

-- American Creosote Works, Pensacola: One of our perennial favorites, ladies and gentlemen, this long-abandoned plant saturated the ground with tens of thousands of gallons of toxic creosote during nearly 80 years of operation. A plume of toxins from the 18-acre site is slowly inching toward Pensacola Bay, though the EPA hopes that by installing extraction wells, it can remove the contaminants before they get there. The EPA has pumped out more than 71,000 gallons of poisonous creosote and other pollutants from the site since 1998. In May 2001, the EPA said it would excavate 40,000 tons of contaminated soils outside the site, move it all to the site and (in a bizarre "solution") cover the mess with an asphalt cap. Meanwhile, the cleanup plan forced the relocation from a neighboring apartment complex. And a one-block section of adjacent Pine Street is contaminated with dioxin -- the most toxic substance regulated by the EPA -- and must be dug up. American Creosote, needless to say, went bankrupt long ago.

-- Solitron Microwave, Port Salerno: Based south of Stuart and north of West Palm Beach, the plant manufactured electronic parts for the military and aerospace equipment. The 20-acre site closed in 1987 after 19 years in business, and Solitron later declared bankruptcy. Groundwater tests revealed a plume, containing chemicals known to cause liver and kidney damage, that is moving 20 to 30 feet a year. The chemicals already have appeared in private wells that supply water to most homes in the Port Salerno area. Notes a recent Palm Beach Post editorial: "If the polluting plants were in Palm Beach and Jupiter Island, safe water would have been provided and cleanups completed years ago." Solitron emerged from bankruptcy in 1993. Now based in West Palm Beach, it has been paying a modest (some say paltry) monthly sum into an escrow account set up to aid the cleanup.

-- Trans Circuits, Lake Park: South of Port Salerno, the 20,000-square-foot electroplating plant operated from 1978 to 1988, churning out electronic components while leaking lead, copper and fluoride into the ground. Toxic chemicals worked their way underground, reaching into and fouling some municipal wells in nearby Riviera Beach. The company is now defunct.

Now folks, I know you're excited to get under way. But don't worry! These five sites -- and dozens upon dozens of other highly toxic waste sites (but that's another tour!) still brewing in Florida -- will still be there tomorrow. And the day after!

Not to worry, souvenir seekers. There will be plenty of time afterward to stop in the Florida Toxic Tours gift shop. We have tee shirts ("I took a Toxic Tour -- and I'm still alive!") and plastic replicas of each of today's five contaminated sites.

We guarantee each one will glow in the dark.

But please -- no littering.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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