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Pollution hot spots will get closer look

State officials will study whether contamination at the county's former Public Works compound warrants a health assessment for neighbors.

By ASJYLYN LODER
Published February 19, 2006


BROOKSVILLE - Contamination of Hernando County's former Department of Public Works compound on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard may prompt state officials to investigate possible health risks faced by its neighbors.

The Florida Department of Health plans to review contamination levels at the site and decide whether a health assessment is warranted, said Randy Merchant, environmental administrator with the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee.

"We'll look at the data and go from there," Merchant said. The review will take several months.

Contaminant levels and chemical profiles will allow the department to estimate exposure and predict the likelihood of illness, helping determine whether additional investigation is necessary, Merchant explained.

The department will review lab results provided to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection by Creative Environmental Solutions, the county's cleanup consultant. The Brooksville firm missed a Wednesday deadline to turn in its first contamination report to the DEP, resulting in the possibility of fines for the county. The company's incomplete draft report showed elevated levels of arsenic, lead and other contaminants.

George Foster, president of Creative Environmental Solutions, said the report took longer than anticipated because he found new pockets of contamination missed by the county's previous consultant. His draft report added 17 new polluted hot spots to the 14 previously identified. Foster said he expects to complete the report for the DEP's review by Friday. It remains unclear whether the elevated contamination levels present a threat to area residents, many of whom live within 15 to 20 feet of the site. Residents of the predominantly African-American south Brooksville neighborhood have complained over the years about rain runoff from the site flooding their yards and basements, and dust blowing off the site into their yards. Foster's recent tests showed surface levels of arsenic at more than double the residential limits on the site's southern boundary line.

But that does not necessarily mean residents were exposed to contamination at levels that merit concern, explained Al Gray, the county's director of environmental health. Some of the contaminants have been found below ground, reducing the chance that residents were exposed. Although groundwater contamination has been found, area residents drink city water, not water from local wells, Gray said.

That reduces what Gray called "paths of exposure," which include ingestion through water or foods grown in contaminated soil, inhalation of contaminated air or dust, and absorption through the skin.

Determining contamination levels that existed throughout the site's history is impossible now because some contaminants evaporate or wash away over time, Gray said. Still, he said, "I think the risks are low, very low."

Richard Howell, a local activist who has been pushing the county to clean up the site, thinks a health assessment is long overdue.

"Arsenic is bad. For anybody to say arsenic is not that bad because it's in this neighborhood is awful," Howell said.

The county purchased the site in 1955. For at least 30 years, the 5 acres housed the county's Department of Public Works, including pesticide crews, road striping and road repair operations, vehicle maintenance and refueling stations. Chemicals stored on the site included petroleum products such as diesel, gasoline and asphalt as well as paints and solvents. A recent report by Creative Environmental Solutions found that the county may have once stored liquid arsenic there.

The county first began investigating solvent and petroleum contamination at the site as early as 1992. In 1998, petroleum contamination was confirmed at the site. The county has spent more than $1-million so far on cleanup and testing. Tests have revealed lead, toluene and carcinogens such as benzene and arsenic in the soil and groundwater at levels that exceed state rules.

The county's slow-moving cleanup finally ran afoul of the DEP last year. In July, following a missed deadline, the department threatened to fine the county, leading the county to replace its cleanup consultant with Creative Environmental Solutions in October.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352 754-6127.

[Last modified February 19, 2006, 01:08:19]


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