The state sees a link to toxins in neighboring wells. Health officials still view the risk as low.
By RON MATUS
Published October 2, 2003
Coronet Industries was named in a pollution lawsuit Wednesday, just as state environmental officials said for the first time that toxins from the Plant City factory appear to be creeping into private wells.
Monitoring wells installed on the southern boundary of Coronet's property a month ago are showing elevated levels of boron and radioactive particles - pollutants that are also appearing in a handful of wells just outside the plant's grounds.
"We've now seen a link, if you will, between what we may be seeing off site and the Coronet property," said Deborah Getzoff, who directs the Department of Environmental Protection's district office in Tampa.
The link is strong enough to prompt DEP to begin enforcement action against Coronet.
But it did not shake the preliminary conclusion of health officials that the risk of pollution-related illness in the area remains very low.
"It does not change how I would interpret the current health threat," said Hillsborough County Health Department Director Doug Holt, who is leading a multiagency probe into residents' pollution fears.
The investigation, which began last summer, is expected to wrap up by the middle of next year.
Some residents - and some lawyers - are not waiting for its conclusions.
Three lawyers, including two from the Tampa Bay area, filed suit in Hillsborough Circuit Court on behalf of five residents and the estate of one man who died from cancer. The lawyers are seeking class action status.
"Our view is that you need to move forward and exercise your rights rather than ... wait for the government to say something's wrong," said Jacksonville lawyer William J. "Chip" Moore III, who filed the suit along with Clearwater attorney Terence Perenich and Tampa attorney Spiro Verras.
The trio is not working with Masry & Vititoe, the California firm associated with environmental crusader Erin Brockovich. That firm has indicated it will file its own suit in a matter of weeks.
The suit filed Wednesday names Coronet, which bought the plant in 1993; other companies that have owned the plant since it was built in 1905; and Coronet's parent companies, Onoda Cement and Mitsui & Co. The latter are billion-dollar companies based in Japan.
The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount of compensation for property damage, personal injury and the need for continuous medical monitoring.
The attorneys declined to be specific about their clients' injuries. The plaintiffs either could not be reached for comment or did not return calls.
Coronet attorney David Weinstein said he could not comment on the suit until he had read it.
As for DEP's assertion about a pollution link, he said there is still not enough evidence to prove that. "We concur that further study is prudent," he said.
Residents blame the aging Coronet plant, which turns phosphate into a supplement for animal feed, for what they see as an epidemic of cancer and developmental disorders. The ongoing investigation is designed to determine if there is a health problem and, if so, who's to blame.
So far, health officials say the pollution levels they're seeing in private wells are unlikely to make people sick. But on Wednesday, they added that the recent findings on the edge of Coronet's property could mean more pollution is seeping toward homes.
"It's essentially a matter of time before a larger area will be contaminated," Holt said.
Coronet's permit allows it to exceed pollution standards on site, as long as contaminants do not migrate beyond its property line.
A recent check of 93 wells within one-quarter mile of the plant found 20 with elevated levels of pollution, and two noticeable clusters of pollution.
One set of wells, near Gentry and Cason roads, is showing higher levels of boron, which can cause stomach ailments, and radioactive particles called radionuclides, which can cause cancer. Another set of wells, near Clemons and Jim Johnson roads, is showing higher levels of arsenic, a cancer-causing metal.
The test results announced Wednesday are from eight wells Coronet sank last summer.
The results that raised the most concern came from two wells that were placed between one of the company's wastewater holding ponds and the property line. Pollutants in those wells showed a "strong correlation" with the private wells near Gentry and Cason Roads, said the DEP's Getzoff.
DEP will send a warning letter to Coronet this week, giving the company 15 days to respond, Getzoff said. If Coronet agrees there is a problem, its options include draining the 57-acre pond, which is thought to the source of the pollution, lining it with an impermeable layer, or building an underground wall to stymie the flow of pollution toward homes. Even with a fix, fines are possible.
At this point, Coronet is refusing to concede anything. One set of data from a couple of wells is not proof, especially when other monitoring wells on company property show no problem, Weinstein said.
Most of the new test wells showed elevated levels of arsenic, but DEP officials said they do not have enough data to link Coronet to the arsenic in private wells.
Other wells near Clemons and Jim Johnson roads did not show elevated levels of arsenic, making it tough to conclude there is a pattern, or a link to Coronet, said DEP geologist William Kutash.
"We have gaps" from well to well, Kutash said.
Investigators are looking at other potential sources of arsenic, including pesticides that may have been sprayed on farms or a nearby golf course.
They're also planning to test another 50 private wells in coming weeks.
- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or firstname.lastname@example.org