Depot cleanup slow but steady

Hernando County's Health Department says Brooksville's former public works storage site poses no imminent health threat.

Published May 17, 2007

BROOKSVILLE -- It's painstaking and slow, but the cleanup of Hernando County's former public works depot in South Brooksville remains on track, county and state officials said Wednesday.

The latest account of pollution at the site was released Wednesday. The report contained few surprises. It's part of an ongoing effort to see how deep and wide contamination has spread, so the county can come up with a plan to clean it up.

"There is no imminent health threat," stressed Al Gray, director of environmental health for the county Health Department.

Much of the contamination is below ground, where people can't come into contact with it. But the report noted two important concerns: the potential threat to the local water supply from years of chemical pollution, and the need to make sure that the yards of residents near the site are free of arsenic and lead contamination.

The cleanup has proceeded by fits and starts since 1991. Neighbors say the pollution damaged their property and made them sick. Some live within 50 feet downhill of the site, with nothing but a metal fence between them and the polluted property.

Many residents in the predominantly black neighborhood have accused the county of racism, saying that officials have ignored decades of polluting by the Public Works Department.

The county has denied that race played a role, and promised to get the site cleaned up.

The results of the expanded testing found:

The tests found no contamination in drainage ditches that run through the Mitchell Heights neighborhood. Neighbors had worried that polluted runoff might have carried poisons several blocks from the site.

It's an incomplete picture of how far the contamination has spread, said assistant county engineer Gregg Sutton. The county needs a full outline in order to thoroughly clean the site, but that takes time, he said. Each round of testing takes nearly six months.

"It takes time, and it takes money," Sutton said. The county has spent more than $1-million since August 2005.

The second phase of the report is due July 16. More testing may be required before the county has a cleanup plan.

While that might take months, the testing is crucial to any cleanup, explained Pamala Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the county's efforts.

Neighbors need to know that the cleanup isn't on a back burner, Vazquez said. "Just because they're not seeing dirt moved on the site doesn't mean that people aren't working behind the scene."

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