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Both sides see good in tests for toxics

Hernando County and neighbors of the ex-public works site differ on whether the results establish fault.

By ASJYLYN LODER
Published July 28, 2006


Last week, the latest round of test results came back from Hernando County's contaminated public works compound.

The report had taken months to complete, but the spin followed fast. Within a week of its July 20 release, lawyers from both sides began jockeying for position.

The county quickly heralded the results as good news. But the attorney for neighbors of the abandoned site said it proves his case: that the contamination damaged their property, and probably their health.

The report offered the first extensive look at whether pollution moved off the site and into the adjoining yards of neighbors.

"Things at this point look positive for the county," said Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben.

Darryl Rouson, attorney for neighbors of the site, saw it differently. "I'm glad that they're not the jury or the judge," he said of the county.

The facts are fairly simple.

In addition to contamination found in the soil and groundwater on the site, the report noted three "hot spots" of contaminated dirt on neighboring property.

Two "hot spots" of the carcinogen arsenic came in higher than the residential limit set by the state. That limit is 2.1 mg/kg. The "hot spots" came back with 2.15 mg/kg and 2.31 mg/kg. The report said that the "the DPW site may be the source."

One "hot spot" of lead was also found in a neighboring yard. The allowable limit is 400 mg/kg. The level found was 421 mg/kg. The report noted that "the source of the lead may not be the DPW site."

Making sense - and evidence - out of those numbers is less simple.

The levels present no immediate health threat, said Al Gray, director of environmental health for Hernando County's Health Department.

The county purchased the 5-acre site now on W Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard back in 1955. Over more than five decades, the county expanded its public works and fleet operations there.

Chemicals stored there included pesticides, kerosene, gasoline, paint and paint thinners. Leaking storage tanks and careless handling allowed chemicals to spill into the dirt and groundwater.

Tests of the water and soil have found the carcinogens arsenic and benzene, as well as solvents and petroleum byproducts. The county took note of the contamination in 1991, but failed to make the cleanup a priority and repeatedly missed cleanup deadlines. The county abandoned the site in 2003.

The state Department of Health is preparing a health assessment that will outline whether the contamination at the site is likely to make neighbors sick.

That report should be completed in six to eight weeks, said Randy Merchant, an environmental toxicologist with the state Department of Health.

But that assessment has limits, Merchant explained. It can't look at contamination that may have washed away over time or measure air pollution that would have dissipated long ago.

In that gray area, Rouson hopes to prove his case. But in that gray area, a judge or jury might find enough room to doubt the county's culpability.

In May, Rouson notified the county that 14 neighbors of the site planned to sue for property damage and personal injury. Those notifications claim damages of at least $100,000 in each case.

Rouson, a St. Petersburg lawyer and former president of that city's chapter of the NAACP, said he has 22 clients that live near the site, but he has not yet filed notifications to sue in each case.

Under state law, the county has six months to respond from the time it receives the notifications. The county can settle the claims, deny them or do nothing.

If the county denies the claims or fails to respond, the potential plaintiffs can file their lawsuits. The statute of limitations allows the plaintiffs three years to file their case from the time they send notifications.

Since Rouson got involved, county officials have remained tight-lipped about the case, wary of saying anything that could be used against them in court.

Rouson said, "My job is to make sure that my clients' claims get a full and fair hearing so that a decision about fault and injury and the cost to clean up is made by an uninterested party, and not the culprit."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352754-6127.

[Last modified July 27, 2006, 23:26:39]


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