tampabay.com

Toxic indifference

By ASJYLYN LODER
Published April 9, 2006


BROOKSVILLE - In 1991, two Hernando County employees sounded the alarm: The county's public works compound was an environmental time bomb.

Stop dumping paint thinner and oil in the dirt, they warned. Get a handle on the contamination before it moves into the yards of the families living along the back fence.

It didn't happen.

Instead of cleaning up the site, the county continued polluting. Instead of cracking down on the county's ineffective cleanup, the state allowed delay after delay, a St. Petersburg Times review found.

- There was no urgency to get started. After the 1991 warning, it took more than six years before the county removed any soil tainted with oil, arsenic and other poisons. It took until 2002 before the county began pumping out groundwater laced with paint thinner and other solvents.

- The county discovered dirt contaminated by a gasoline spill in December 1998, but didn't remove it until last April.

- The county has hired four consultants and spent more than $1-million - but they still don't know how far the contamination has spread.

- County officials assured neighbors that contamination never migrated into their yards and posed no health threat. But the count y never tested the neighbors' yards or investigated the health of the families behind the site.

Residents in south Brooksville's predominantly black Mitchell Heights neighborhood say their government neglected them - because it could.

"It's like it didn't bother them," said Lauraette Lee, who has lived at the southeast corner of the site for almost 22 years. "I guess they just didn't care. People down here are black. If they had been white, they would have done something about it a long time ago."

Public works director Charles Mixson hotly denied that charge. The county polluted the site and took longer than it should to clean it up, he acknowledged.

But race had nothing to do with it, he said.

"We tried to be the best neighbors we could."

- - -

Hernando County purchased the 5-acre site in 1955 for $1.

Over the next 30 years, the county expanded its public works operations. Eventually, the depot housed the county's gas stations and mechanics, road repair and restriping operations and mosquito control. The county stored diesel, gasoline, asphalt emulsion, kerosene, pesticides, paints and solvents at the site.

Bordered on the north by W Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard, the property sloped southward toward the back yards of the houses lining A Street. Over the years, the county raised the rear of the property almost level with the entrance on Martin Luther King. The back end of the site forms a flat-topped plateau ending in a 10-foot drop to the yards behind it.

When it rained, stormwater ran south across the site, over that drop and into a ditch that runs along a chain-link fence dividing the compound from the neighbors' homes.

In 1984, Lee and her four children moved into a new house less than 50 feet from the southeast corner of the fence.

Most of Lee's neighbors along A Street built their neat, one-story homes in the two decades before Lee moved in, at the same time the county was expanding operations at the site next door. It was an up and coming blue-collar neighborhood of janitors, mine company workers and nurses like herself.

From her back door, Lee watched workers rinse diesel-lined truck beds into the ditch.

"We always knew they were dumping over there," Lee said. "You knew that. We just never knew it was contaminated. We never knew it was something that could harm your health."

One weekend in the late 1980s, a river of reeking black sludge poured from the site into the ditch that ran through Lee's yard, she recalled. Her youngest son's asthma flared up, and her other children complained of headaches and nausea.

To get someone to clean up the mess, she called the Police Department, the Fire Department and the county. Finding help proved difficult on a weekend. David Sloan, the county's emergency management director, came out later that day.

Sloan found that a spigot on a tank of tar emulsion had been left open, he recalled recently. The emulsion, which contains chemicals that can cause skin rashes and respiratory irritation, drained downhill and through Lee's yard.

"There was a hell of a lot of it that flowed out there," Sloan recalled. "I came in and I was kind of horrified."

He had to prod the county to send workers out to clean up the mess.

"That's what amazed me, the casualness of them not caring about it because these kids were riding their bikes in the ditch," said Sloan, who retired in 1994 after 10 years with the county.

Even before the spill, Sloan had warned the county that he had seen employees dumping buckets of paint thinner in the dirt.

A 23-year public works employee, Gerald O'Dell, told the county last year that workers would pump toluene into the road-striping machine to thin the paint, rinsing it directly into the ground. The solvent can damage the nervous system.

Employee Kerry O. Smith told the county that workers would disassemble broken equipment and let the oil and hydraulic fluid drain into the ground.

Sloan taught employees a required course in how to properly handle chemicals, but the county resisted his efforts to change their work habits.

"There wasn't a great deal of awareness or any concern," Sloan said. "They felt I was interfering and that I was a pain in the a--."

In a report filed in October 1991, Sloan and Katherine Liles, then the county's environmental planner, noted stained soil that smelled of petroleum and said there was a "high probability" the site was contaminated.

Worried that poisons could move into neighboring yards and endanger public health, Liles recommended that the county conduct a thorough environmental investigation.

"The biggest thing that needed to happen is they had to make some changes in how they handled materials at the site," Liles said recently.

But little changed. The polluting continued - while cleanup efforts stalled.

Here's one example of how slowly things moved:

In May 1996, the third consultant hired by the county - Engineering Technology of America in St. Petersburg - submitted a report noting "hot spots" of contaminated soil, including two carcinogens: benzene and arsenic.

The consultant recommended that the county dig out the contaminated soil, follow up with more tests, and install wells to pump out contaminated groundwater.

The county submitted its assessment and cleanup plan to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which needed to review and approve it.

The state took 10 months to respond to the county's report. Another eight months passed before workers carted off 83 tons of contaminated soil.

That marked the first cleanup measure taken since Liles' report urging action - six years before.

It took another five years before the cleanup wells started pumping out the contaminated groundwater.

Why did the county take so long to start the cleanup?

"I hate to throw the race card into it," Sloan said recently, "but if you look in back of there, most of the residents are African-American. It's possible. Could I prove that? No, I can't prove that."

Richard Howell, a black community activist, said the county and state ignored his concerns for years.

"We didn't have enough clout to do anything about it."

Mixson, the public works director, noted that the county made efforts to stem contamination, such as switching to water-based paint and getting rid of the paint thinner. The county kept the neighborhood streets well paved, cleaned out drainage ditches to curb flooding and hired workers from within the community.

"We've done a lot," Mixson said. "I find it a little harsh to say we were not good neighbors."

- - -

Contamination moves. It sinks and spreads out, and it typically follows the water.

In this case, the water moved south and east, toward the back fence and the yards on the other side of it.

Rumors moved too. Along the fence line, in the absence of information from the county, those rumors took on unreal proportions: Cyanide saturated the whole site, cancer riddled the neighborhood.

Those rumors provided a background to the day-to-day nuisances.

There was flooding, so much that Lee had to replace her den floor four times. She took pictures of her bare feet at her back door, ankle deep in water.

After a rain, rainbow sheens of oil colored the puddles in the back yard, said Richard Hudson III, who grew up in the house behind where county workers used to wash diesel and asphalt out of road repair trucks.

His neighbor, Carrie Ellison, complained to the county about the water and lime rock washing into the collard greens she served at family dinners.

The stink of fuel, paint and solvents pervaded the neighborhood. It aggravated Ronnie Roberts' asthma and gave his sisters headaches.

Trucks and equipment stirred up clouds of lime rock dust that blew over the neighboring houses. The dust coated windowsills, dirtied laundry left out on the line, and deposited white silt in neighboring yards.

"You could wash your car, and the wind blow from back there, and in 30 minutes it would be white," said Hudson's father, Richard Hudson Jr.

The consultant's 1996 report noted oil contamination in the south ditch that runs past Hudson's back yard. No one told Hudson, even though it was found just 5 feet from where his children played baseball growing up.

Nor did the county tell Vincent Lee Rogers Sr. about the benzene found across the fence from his back yard.

That same report noted arsenic in the dirt less than 50 feet from Lee's daughters' bedroom window. No one told her, either.

- - -

At times, the county had more than 20,000 gallons of fuel in tanks buried beneath the site. Underground lines carried the fuel from the tanks to the gas pumps where the county refueled its fleet.

Smith, who worked for public works since 1987, wrote that the tanks were leaking but the county "waited until they were losing lots of fuel before they were replaced in about 1990."

In late 1998, the county discovered another underground fuel spill. State rules gave the county nine months to assess the contamination and draft a plan to clean it up.

Bill Kutash, director of waste management for the DEP district that covers Hernando County, said such reports are critical to understanding the extent of contamination and determining possible risks to people and the environment.

"It's the key or the heart of the whole process," Kutash said.

But the report didn't come in for more than four years.

During that time, the county twice missed its deadline to turn it in - and both times the state took more than 15 months to point it out.

The reason the county missed the deadlines? For more than a year, county officials didn't know which department was in charge of the cleanup. Another 15 months went by because the county forgot to put through a purchase order authorizing its consultant to get started.

While cleanup efforts faltered, the county failed to properly maintain and inspect its tanks, a state inspection found in March 2000. The state fined the county $11,925.

And still the report wasn't turned in. In the end, a report due in September 1999 was submitted in March 2003.

The county abandoned the compound for its newly built headquarters that same year. Two years later, without ever completing a complete outline of the fuel contamination, the county removed 715 tons of petroleum-contaminated soil, 10 times what the consultant expected to find.

The dirt was removed in April 2005 - six years and five months after the county first discovered the spill.

Mixson, who took over public works in 1998, said cleanup efforts faltered because no one knew who was in charge. Mixson thought that fleet maintenance had it under control; fleet maintenance thought Mixson was in charge. The cleanup fell through the cracks.

"There's enough culpability or blame or lack of follow-through for everybody," said Gregg Sutton, the county engineer now in charge of the cleanup.

DEP's Kutash says the county - not his agency - is to blame for the slow response.

"The onus is on them to do it," he said. "It's not on the state to babysit and hand-hold."

- - -

It took 43 truckloads to cart away the petroleum-contaminated soil. That caught the neighbors' attention.

Howell, the community activist who had complained about the site for years, peppered the DEP with phone calls and letters. He formed a neighborhood health awareness group and went door to door asking neighbors about their health.

Along the back fence, no home has gone untouched by illness. Kidney disease, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, cancer.

But were any of these illnesses caused or worsened by the contamination a few feet from their back yards? It's a question even experts can't answer.

The residents drink city water, not water from nearby wells. Much of the soil and water contamination has been found below ground, where residents would not have come into contact with it.

The contamination levels don't pose a serious health risk, Kutash said.

But the risks increase with time. In the 10 houses along the compound's back fence, at least five of the families have lived there for more than 20 years. Two families - the Lees and the Hudsons - have three generations living on the block.

Lee's daughter worked at the site for a time, as did her husband, who still works for the public works department. Knowing what she does now, she tries to keep her 18-month-old grandson from playing near the fence.

When she thinks back, Lee can't help but wonder about the yard where her four children played, and the air they breathed. About the rashes and sores her kids got on their bare legs, her youngest son's asthma attacks, the growths she and her two daughters have on their eyelids.

"It's making me think now I need to get away from here," Lee said. "Everybody here is sick."

- - -

Last spring, nearly 14 years after the first alarm sounded, the state responded to mounting criticism from neighborhood activists.

James Cleary, the assistant director for the DEP district overseeing Hernando, ordered his staff to make the cleanup its top priority. He appointed an ombudsman to field community concerns.

"Not that it was any riskier, or we knew anything more than we did six months before that," he said, "other than people were concerned about their health and were not sleeping as well as they might."

He said that if citizens had brought the problems to the DEP sooner, the state might have intervened sooner.

"We've done the best we could given the circumstances," Cleary said. "Could we improve it? Heck yes. But everybody can't be at the top of the list. That's just not possible."

The state had allowed the county seven extensions to assess the petroleum contamination. But in July 2005, when the county asked for an eighth extension, the state said no. And threatened fines - as much as $10,000 a day.

While maintaining a strained public peace, the county and the state DEP bickered privately about who deserved blame for the slow-moving cleanup. At a closed-door meeting in August, Public Works Director Mixson pointed out "that FDEP granted all the extensions," according to one county employee's notes from the meeting.

Cleary accused Mixson of "hiding behind FDEP."

At the same closed-door session, another county employee wrote that federal investigator Daniel Green of the Environmental Protection Agency said that "... based on what he's seen, if he lived on a neighboring property, he would hire someone to take to take soil samples from his property and if they came back contaminated, he would hire an attorney and sue our a----."

Last September, the county and state held their first public meeting with the community. The county had long said that contamination never moved into the yards of the homes lining A Street, but neighbors never believed it. For the first time, the DEP told the neighbors what they had suspected:

The county never tested the soil at the border of the site, or beyond its chain-link fence. No one knew how far the contaminated groundwater plume had spread.

The next month, the county's new consultant found new hot spots of contamination, including arsenic at nearly five times the state's allowable residential limit.

The arsenic was found on Lee's side of the fence, less than 50 feet from the swing set where her grandson plays. Still, nobody told her.

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