Real health risks?
By ROBERT FARLEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001
TARPON SPRINGS -- For decades, neighbors of the now-closed Stauffer Chemical phosphorus-processing plant feared the plant had contaminated their soil, their wells, their lungs and the elementary school across the street.
Again and again, federal and state officials told them not to worry.
Now, nearly 20 years after Stauffer Chemical closed the plant, a watchdog official with the federal Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says there could be cause for concern after all.
In a 196-page report released Thursday, registry ombudsman Ronnie Wilson concludes that public health officials did not use all the data available when they downplayed, as recently as 1993, the public health hazards posed by Stauffer.
"I just think an insufficient effort was put into it," Wilson said. He recommended further tests, including checkups of some of the former students who attended the 700-student Gulfside Elementary School from 1977 to 1981. It's an expensive but necessary undertaking, he said, although current students are safe.
Amy Alley, 28, of New Port Richey, and a former Gulfside student in 1980, was shaken by that recommendation.
"You never know what's going to happen down the road," said Alley, one of about 100 people to turn out for a meeting on the report Thursday night at Tarpon Springs City Hall. "Am I going to get cancer? It worries me."
In the report, Wilson notes that the plant's slag-crushing operation was just across the street from the school.
"Dust filled with a multitude of contaminants from the operation had very little distance to travel to reach the children," the report said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, who had asked Wilson to investigate, called Wilson's report a "vindication" for many area residents who have raised concerns about Stauffer over the years. Up to 14,000 people live within a mile of the site.
Former Tarpon Springs resident Mary Mosley, who has contended for years that the government glossed over the health effects of the Stauffer plant, said the report is "the best thing that has happened to this community to date."
In a strongly worded response from Stauffer Management Co., president Brian Spiller attacked Wilson's report as speculative, biased, alarmist and lacking scientific foundation.
Spiller noted that in addition to Stauffer, the site has been investigated extensively by the ATSDR, the EPA, Florida's departments of health and environmental protection and Pinellas County officials.
"These numerous studies and sampling events have universally confirmed that there is no public health concern off-site and that on-site contamination can be addressed by a properly designed remedy that (Stauffer Management Co.) will implement," Spiller said.
In his report, Wilson also recommends that health officials undertake a study of former Stauffer employees whose health was "likely impacted" by the plant. There are 2,567 former employees.
One former employee, Jim Taylor of Clearwater, said a health study is long overdue. Many of the former workers are already dead, Taylor said. He described conditions at the plant as deplorable.
Another major finding of the report is that massive amounts of raw fibrous asbestos -- perhaps as much as 2-million pounds -- were used in the operation of the plant but were never accounted for.
"There is no question in my mind that asbestos was used in large volumes and it has disappeared," Wilson said.
In his report, Wilson says that little testing has been done to determine whether the slag, a radioactive byproduct of phosphorus processing, contained asbestos. If it did, he said, "it would be reasonable to assume that some of the fibers reached the school amidst the dust of the slag crushing."
Wilson also suggests additional tests be conducted on slag used in neighborhood roads, driveways and home foundations to determine whether the slag contains asbestos fibers and whether those fibers are being released in the air.
While the ATSDR has maintained the radioactivity of the off-site slag will not adversely affect the public's health, Wilson notes that similar levels at a Superfund site in Idaho warranted some cleanup of the slag.
Among the other major findings in the report is that air emissions from the plant "were plentiful and had a negative impact on life in the community," from the time the plant opened in 1947 and for several decades.
Wilson bases that conclusion in large part on information discovered in a little-known lawsuit filed in 1948 against Victor Chemical Works, which ran the plant before selling to Stauffer in 1959. In the suit, eight neighbors contended that noxious fumes emitted from the plant caused them to cough and killed nearby trees and cattle.
A deposition in that lawsuit of Victor's plant operations manager reveals that the clouds that wafted off the property were from smoke emitted by the slag as it was tapped from the plant's furnace.
Wilson said that was phosphorus pentoxide, an irritant to the lungs that can pose serious health consequences if breathed for long periods. Wilson also noted that in the 1970s, Stauffer made efforts to control the emissions, "yet air standards continued to be violated repeatedly."
In Stauffer's response, Spiller also took issue with the tone of Wilson's report, saying it was one-sided and tended to "overdramatize" issues by repeating unsubstantiated community rumors about Stauffer.
One example, he said, is Wilson's recommendation that ATSDR work with EPA to determine whether uranium was processed at the site, and whether any military or para-military maneuvers were conducted at the site in the 1990s.
Spiller called those allegations "ludicrous" and contended that their inclusion in the report discredits the ATSDR.
Spiller described as "speculative" questions raised in the report about what kind of material might have been used to fill an on-site sinkhole, as well as to create a berm on the edge of Meyer's Cove.
While Wilson recommends that ATSDR prepare a new peer-reviewed public health assessment, the agency's assistant administrator did not commit to any specific actions in response. But Dr. Henry Falk said it "behooves us at the agency to take this thing very seriously and follow up on it."
Falk said the ATSDR will come back to Tarpon Springs in several weeks to respond to the report and outline any additional studies that will to be done. Stauffer Management and EPA also plan to prepare responses to Wilson's report.
November 1947: Victor Chemical Co. starts processing phosphate ore on 130 acres on the Anclote River. The ore is fired in a kiln with a 320-ton capacity to produce elemental phosphorus, which is used in a wide variety of consumer and industrial products.
June 1948: Eight neighbors sue Victor Chemical in federal court, charging that noxious fumes from the plant irritate their throats, make them cough and kill nearby trees and plants. The suit is dismissed in 1952.
1960: Stauffer Chemical Co. purchases the plant. Although the plant's ownership changes several more times, Stauffer operates it until it closes in 1981.
1977: Pasco County's Gulfside Elementary School, with about 700 children, opens across the street from the area where the plant stores its slag.
1981: Stauffer closes the plant.
1994: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts the Stauffer site on its Superfund cleanup list.
October 1999: Residents complain to the ombudsman for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that past public health assessments of Stauffer were incomplete and request an investigation. Similar requests were made through April 2000, when U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, formally requests the ombudsman's participation.
August 2000: Under fire from the community, Bilirakis and its own ombudsman, the EPA withdraws a controversial cleanup plan that it had negotiated with Stauffer executives until further studies are done.
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