By KATHRYN WEXLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2001
TAMPA -- At Al Lopez Park, there wasn't much fun to be had Thursday.
Uniformed Parks Department employees erected a 6-foot chain-link fence around a rambling, castle-like playground. A second playground, with plenty of wooden decks, also was off-limits.
"Play area closed until further notice," read the sign.
Like its counterpart in Tarpon Springs, the Tampa Parks Department has decided for now to keep children off the pressure-treated wood in the playgrounds. Soil samples taken nearby found elevated levels of arsenic.
"My goodness, that's serious," said Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank when told Thursday of the closures. That morning, Frank had asked the staff of the county's Environmental Protection Commission to study whether the wood is posing health risks to children. The study should be finished by May, EPC officials said.
The St. Petersburg Times on Sunday detailed excessive levels of arsenic in the soil of five playgrounds in the Tampa Bay area. At Al Lopez Park, a test by Thornton Labs in September, commissioned by the newspaper, found more than 11 times the amount of arsenic the state recommends at residential sites.
The Parks Department, prompted by the Times' information, also paid Thornton Labs to conduct tests there and found levels that exceeded the same standard in two samples taken last year.
"Are they going to tear it down?" asked park visitor Amanda Jordan as she walked away from the playground, her 4-year-old daughter tugging at her hand.
Officials say they don't know what they're going to do, if anything.
Parks Director Ross Ferlita said he decided to close the playgrounds Thursday morning, "after thinking about it last night."
Ferlita said the playgrounds will be closed, "until we decide what direction we're going to go, whether to replace it."
EPC Director Richard Garrity said a hard look at arsenic research is in order.
"Before we react, I think we need to look at what the data is, what concentration of arsenic was used and what concentration of arsenic is in the soil," Garrity said. "We want to react but not overreact either."
Thornton Labs took about a dozen soil samples from the park on Thursday, said Henry McGriff, deputy parks director. The department has asked the company to expedite the results.
Playgrounds in unincorporated Hillsborough were built with more durable materials than pressure-treated wood, said Peter Fowler, resource department manager for county Parks and Recreation.
But there are other structures, like boardwalks and small bridges, constructed with the wood.
"Generally, you're just coming in foot contact," he said.
Frank said a review of the issue should include a look at the state's arsenic standards to see if they are too low.
"We have an obligation to check it out," Frank said. If a problem is found, "I'm sure there's going to be an economic impact" to fix it."
Arsenic fears rise over treated wood disposal (March 11, 2001)
Arsenic victims 'never know what hit them' (March 11, 2001)
The poison in your back yard (March 11, 2001)