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Long Center to test playground

Sunshine Playground will stay open until results come back, the center's executive director says.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001


Sunshine Playground will stay open until results come back, the center's executive director says.

CLEARWATER -- Following the lead of other Tampa Bay area cities, the Long Center will test the soil at its Sunshine Playground to determine if arsenic is leaching into the dirt from the playground's pressure-treated wood, officials said Thursday.

In the meantime, the castle-shaped playground will remain open to children until test results come back, said Mark Abdo, the Long Center's executive director.

Other similarly designed Tampa Bay area playgrounds -- including Al Lopez Park's playground in Tampa and the Discovery Playground in Tarpon Springs -- have been closed and fenced off while officials in those cities debate similar concerns about arsenic.

Abdo said the playground probably will be tested early next week, and it would take another seven or 10 days to get the results back.

But Abdo said it would be premature to close Clearwater's Sunshine Playground without knowing whether the soil is contaminated or what risk it could pose to people.

"I don't know if we have a problem," Abdo said. "That's the whole thing. That's why you get it tested. The real question is, if you get it tested and it shows something, then what do you do? There's some big questions you have to look at, and we're not at that point."

The Long Center sports complex at 1501 N Belcher Road is run by a public-private partnership that is supported by the cities of Clearwater and Safety Harbor.

The testing was prompted, Abdo said, by a recent St. Petersburg Times investigation of the hazards of pressure-treated wood.

The first report -- published two weeks ago -- included soil tests at five other Tampa Bay area playgrounds that were built with pressure-treated wood in the past decade. All of the results came back with arsenic levels higher than state safety standards.

But the Times also reported that deciding what to do about it won't be easy. State and federal regulators don't have a good idea exactly what kind of risk the arsenic from pressure-treated wood poses. Meanwhile, the wood-treatment industry says its own studies prove that pressure-treated wood is safe.

Abdo was aware of the concerns about arsenic from pressure-treated wood well before the recent Times stories.

Abdo said the designers of the playground, Leathers & Associates of New York, had reassured the Long Center there was no problem. He had even called the Times several weeks ago to express concern about the pending Times report on arsenic from playgrounds like Sunshine.

The Long Center has maintained the Sunshine Playground since it was built in 1990 by volunteers, financed by nearly $100,000 raised by the Junior League of Clearwater-Dunedin, Abdo said.

Abdo said he decided Monday that the Sunshine Playground should now be tested, as he clipped and read articles about how other area officials were dealing with the issue during the previous week.

Abdo said the testing has been delayed as he waited for city environmental engineers to develop a plan. Abdo was going to have soil samples taken Tuesday to a lab, but Clearwater officials wanted to get involved because the city actually owns the land under the playground, he said.

But Tom Miller, the city's assistant engineering director, said he thinks the city has moved promptly. Miller said he told city parks officials the day after he read about the issue in the Times that his division would be glad to help test the soil at the playground.

Miller said he will finalize a plan for testing today. The city will cover the testing costs, which should be less than $500.

Kevin Dunbar, the city's parks and recreation director, didn't object to keeping the playground open in the meantime.

"We don't know if there's a problem yet or not," Dunbar said. "Mark has told me that he has talked to (the playground's designers) and they have told them there isn't a problem. But just to be safe, we're going to go ahead and have it tested."

A dozen kids swarmed over the wood Sunshine Playground on Thursday, wiggling through portals and stomping across bridges.

If there were any concern at all about the soil, Seminole resident Jeannie Cercek said, she thinks the Long Center should close the playground to kids while deciding what to do. Cercek watched her 7-year-old son, D.J., and her 8-year-old daughter, Kayleigh, play at Sunshine no Thursday afternoon.

"If they found something here, I won't be letting my children play here," Cercek said, noting her son's immune system is weak because he suffers from Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

"If there was something even slightly dangerous, I wouldn't even take a chance," Cercek said. "I wouldn't understand any parent who got upset about them closing it for while, to be sure for the safety of the children."

-- Information from Times files and photographer Carrie Pratt contributed to this report.

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