A Haunting Past for Northwest Gainesville
When Mary Ann Jones bought her house in northwest Gainesville, the real estate agent said there might be noise every now and then due to the nearby industrial facility. She was okay with that. She was not warned that her grandchildren could be exposed to a dangerous concentration of dioxins, which are known to cause cancer and a wide range of health problems, especially in small children.
“I felt like this man signed me a death sentence,” she said.
For slightly over a year, Jones has lived at 3118 NW 4th St. with her extended family, which includes three grandchildren. The top of her fence is wrapped in barbed wire, which separates her backyard from the 90-acre Superfund site previously owned by Koppers, Inc. She wants to move away but doesn’t have the financial means.
For 93 years, Koppers, Inc. operated a wood-treatment facility at 200 NW 23rd Ave, releasing industrial toxins—including arsenic, hexavalent chromium, creosote, and dioxins—into Gainesville’s air, water, and soil. The area is now ranked as one of the nation’s top-100 polluted sites. It has been designated a Superfund site—a place so heavily polluted with toxic waste that it poses a threat to human health and the environment—for 27 years.
“I’m scared to death,” Jones said. “I like to garden, but now my plants are dead because I’m scared to touch them. We’re pretty much stuck here.”
Her two youngest grandchildren—Carlos, 6, and Aaron, 3—play outside every day without understanding the situation.
“We’re always telling them—if you drop anything on the ground, don’t pick it up, and definitely don’t put it in your mouth. And always wash your hands when you come inside.”
Jones said she feels like no one has been there for her—not the local or state government, and certainly not the EPA. Her front yard is peppered with signs that say things like, “Governor Crist—Where Are You?” and “Gainesville’s Dirty Little Secret is Out!”
The site is currently managed by Beazer East, the company responsible for cleaning up the site. According to disclosure forms filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Beazer was previously known as Koppers Company, Inc. and has an agreement to absorb environmental liabilities from the current incarnation of Koppers.
Legal battles over contamination have followed the companies around the country. Koppers currently faces lawsuits in Texas and Mississippi, though many of the claims have been dismissed. In its latest annual report, Koppers warned investors that “Litigation against us could be costly and time-consuming to defend, and due to the nature of our business and products, we may be liable for damages arising out of our acts or omissions.”
Years of Uncertainty
Chris Bird of the Alachua County Department of Environmental Protection said the fact that Koppers was allowed to operate its facility for so long, despite the property’s Superfund status, has hindered the clean-up process.
“You can’t make a bed while someone is still sleeping in it,” he said.
Mitchell Brourman, a representative from Beazer East, said there are many reasons the process has taken so long, from Gainesville’s unique geology to discrepancies between state and federal regulations. He acknowledged, however, that the continued operation of the Koppers facility was one of them, “to some degree.”
Local activist groups, including Protect Gainesville Citizens, Ban CCA, and the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Protection Group, have documented a variety of health complications among people who live near the site, from cancer to skin problems. They also contend that an unusually high number of dogs and cats near the site have malignant tumors.
Tests performed by the city and state health departments indicate hazardous dioxin levels in an easement between NW 26 St and NW 30 Ave, which serves as a buffer between Koppers and nearby neighborhoods. In 2009, the Alachua County Health department issued a press release warning parents not to let their children play in the easement.
The press release also states, “Incidental ingestion (swallowing) of very small amounts of surface soil in the neighborhood north and west of Koppers is not likely to cause harm.”
Scott Miller, the EPA’s regional project manager, said evidence of cancer in the neighborhood residents has been “anecdotal” and that the EPA “has not observed that effect.”
“The Florida Department of Health is doing a study of cancers in the area,” Miller said. “They will probably be making a response to that specific question with respect to folks living there as well as animals.”
Local resdents say they have waited too long for answers. Protect Gainesville Citizens has received an EPA grant to hire technical advisers, but the grants cannot be used to pay for additional testing. Advisers can only help community groups make sense of existing reports.
“We need more data,” said Cheryll Krauth, one of the group’s officers. “There are reports of health problems, and we don’t know if they’re worse than the average neighborhood or not. The problem is that the entities responsible for testing aren’t telling us.”
For decades, the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Protection Group has not trusted the state, Beazer, or the EPA. Last year, they sought help from the Law Offices of Robert H. Weiss, a firm that specializes in environmental justice.
In January, Xenobiotic Laboratories, Inc., an environmental consulting firm hired by the legal team, tested fine dust particles from inside nine randomly selected houses within a two-mile radius of the Superfund site.
“This is unique,” said Stephen Murakami, a Weiss attorney. “Indoor tests are rarely performed [by government agencies]. Outdoor soil testing is their standard, as opposed to indoor tests where it counts—where people live, breathe, and make their beds.”
The state has determined that the maximum dioxin concentration for soil outside to be safe is seven parts per trillion. Inside the nine houses tested, the average dioxin concentration was 400 parts per trillion. In one house, they were as high as 1,200 parts per trillion.
While toxins can dissipate in the environment, they can accumulate indoors. Murakami said that while outdoor levels may take this into consideration, he believes the results reveal a substantial risk to human health, and called for additional testing. The test results have not yet been made public.
According to the World Health Organization, long-term dioxin exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the nervous system, the endocrine system, and reproductive functions. Chronic exposure may lead to several types of cancer. Small children face the greatest risks.
Mary Ann Jones was recently informed of the tests by Stephen Foster residents. She’s left to wonder whether her family’s ailments, from skin rashes to nosebleeds, are mere coincidences, or signs of toxic contamination. The uncertainty fuels her fears.
“The more I think about it, the angrier I get,” Jones said. “You can’t put no price on my life or my family. Why would you try to cover up something that you know is so deadly? Why do you think money is more important than the lives of my grandkids?”
The Superfund site is dotted with retention lagoons—unprotected pits where toxic waste is stored, a legacy of lax environmental regulations before the 1970s.
Local agencies had warned that creosote and other compounds could reach the Floridan Aqufer, 200 feet below the surface. The EPA contended until 2001 that the underground Hawthorne clay layer would provide a protective seal.
“We and some citizens had been telling them we didn’t believe that—you haven’t done the right investigations to know what’s happening that deep under the site,” said Rick Hutton, an engineer from Gainesville Regional Utilities.
After further investigations, experts from the EPA, Beazer, and Gainesville Regional Utilities all agree that the Floridan Aquifer is already contaminated. Now, chemicals are slowly moving towards the Murphree Wellfield, where Gainesville Regional Utilities draws the city’s drinking water supply.
“We have wells in between our site and the Murphree Well Field,” said Mitchell Brourman of Beazer East. “Those monitoring wells are consistently clean. The protection of Gainesville’s water supply is one of the premises of our work.”
Hutton said Beazer will probably need to dig more wells to contain “hot spots” of underground pollution, and pump groundwater out of the aquifer at a faster rate to ensure it can be treated at the surface before contaminants reach the water supply.
“We don’t think the low-rate pumping will work,” said Hutton. “The EPA wants to give it a chance. If it doesn’t work, we expect them to take further steps.”
What can we do?
Groups of concerned citizens, including the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Association, Ban CCA, Protect Gainesville Citizens and the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Protection Group, have been working for decades to spread awareness of the issue and encourage community activism.
“Over 158 other sites have been closed since ours was declared a Superfund site,” said Maria Parsons of the Gainesville Neighborhood Protection Group. “We’re still not cleaned up. Why? People coming together matters. You need to get active. Dig your heels in. Protest. Write letters. Make phone calls.”
Tia Ma, an officer of Protect Gainesville Citizens, has proposed the idea of using the property previously owned by Koppers to build an environmental research center, which would commemorate decades of anxiety and suffering, transforming them into a learning experience.
Brourman said Beazer East has “no problem” with that idea.
“There are going to be some public meetings where people can talk,” he said. “We’re all ears to those sorts of things.”
Want to get involved or find out more about Gainesville’s local Superfund site and what different agencies and activist groups are doing to clean it up? Visit Protect Gainesville Citizens.
Henry Taksier is a student at the University of Florida and an editorial board member of The Fine Print, the Campus Progress-sponsored publication where this article originally appeared. As a member of Campus Progress' journalism network, The Fine Print receives funding and training from our organization.