SUN CITY — Federal officials took charge this week of underground contamination that's threatening private wells along U.S. 41 just north of the Hillsborough-Manatee county line, declaring the polluted area a Superfund site eligible for federally funded cleanup.
About a dozen neighbors turned out Tuesday for a kickoff information meeting with Environmental Protection Agency officials at Southside Baptist Church.
EPA representatives and several state and county regulators said chemicals linked to cancer and liver ailments have turned up in drinking water wells near J.J. Seifert Machine Co., which has operated at Vidor Avenue and U.S. 41 since 1962.
The company does not have the money to clean up the site, said EPA project attorney Suzanne Armor. The EPA is negotiating with J.J. Seifert and a company that leased the site for a time to arrange a fair contribution toward the cleanup, she said.
"Our goal is not to take every penny and put a business out," Armor said.
Calls to J.J. Seifert and its Tampa attorney, Laurel Lockett, and the former lessee's Tampa attorney, Ron Noble, were not immediately returned.
James Hou, the EPA's project manager for the site, said more than $700,000 in federal funding has been earmarked to identify a cleanup solution, which the EPA hopes to achieve within two years. He said it's too early to estimate final cleanup costs.
The Florida Department of Health detected high levels of tetrachloroethylene, also known as PCE, a few years ago in 12 of 28 wells within a quarter-mile radius of the machine shop. The chemical, widely associated with dry cleaning operations, is a solvent that was used at the machine shop to take grease off parts.
Contamination of five of those wells exceeded maximum federal standards for safe drinking water, leading the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to install filters. One well, across Old U.S. 41 from the machine shop, showed levels 30 times higher than the 5 parts per billion maximum amount considered safe.
Other "daughter products" created by the breakdown of PCE also have been detected at unsafe levels, Hou said.
Periodic testing indicates the filters are working, said Mark Adams, an environmental specialist with the Hillsborough County Health Department well surveillance program.
The Health Department tests the contaminated wells every three months and the other wells in the identified area twice a year, he said.
The pollution likely occurred between 1975 and 1998, when the machine shop used a vapor degreaser to clean parts, according to a fact sheet distributed by the state Health Department and U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The solvent also was stored in drums at the shop.
Site owners discovered the contamination and reported it to state regulators after they tried to sell the property in 2000, Armor said. A presale environmental assessment revealed the underground pollution.
The groundwater contamination appears to be spreading west and possibly southwest from the machine shop, officials said. The target area for continued testing is roughly bounded by U.S. 41 on the west, Uncle Brack Avenue on the west, Vidor Avenue on the north and Fox Place to the south.
Hou said possible cleanup techniques could include pumping out the groundwater, treating it and putting it back or injecting treatment chemicals into the groundwater to neutralize the contaminants. How soon the cleanup follows after a plan is approved depends on securing funding, he said.
Susan Green can be reached at email@example.com.