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Extent of toxic plume in St. Petersburg neighborhood identified

ST. PETERSBURG — State environmental regulators now believe they have a good grasp of how far and deep a plume of pollutants extends under the Azalea neighborhood near the Raytheon plant, they announced at a public hearing Thursday night.

But the announcement — a precursor to Raytheon submitting a formal plan for cleaning up the toxic plume — failed to satisfy many of the 100 or so people in the crowd.

"How many years is this cleanup going to take?" asked Annette Kraut, 70. "I want to know when this place is going to go back to being what it was 30 years ago."

Although officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health have said the contamination does not appear to threaten human health, several people in the crowd expressed skepticism.

"Frankly I can't believe anything that's being said," crowd member Carol Caleca said.

DEP officials said the plume extends up to 80 feet deep and has spread to the edge of the Azalea Elementary School campus — but is not affecting the school, the location of the hearing.

Tests performed for attorneys who are representing some Azalea neighborhood residents in class-action suits against Raytheon show the plume is more extensive than what Raytheon's consultants mapped out, and could be producing gas that has infiltrated homes.

But DEP district secretary Deborah Getzoff said no one had submitted those tests to her agency, so they had not been included in the DEP's assessment.

"We would be happy to review them if someone would submit them," she said. "We don't have the staff to poke around in court records for information that may or may not be relevant."

The hearing drew criticism of the department from some residents, who say that despite the assurances of state officials they are still fearful.

"I don't feel comfortable living in a community where we're slowly being poisoned from the ground up," said 30-year resident Tom McClure.

Workers discovered the contamination in 1991 during construction of the Pinellas Trail, which runs next to the Raytheon property. The pollution originated from a drum storage area on the site, which had belonged to a company called E-Systems.

The factory, built in the 1950s, has long been used for manufacturing electronic components that produced a variety of toxic chemicals. For years the E-Systems management paid little heed to safe disposal, said Art Alling, who worked there from 1962 to 1987.

"We dumped everything down in a ditch behind the plant," he said in an interview last year.

When Raytheon bought E-Systems in 1995, it inherited the pollution headache but for four years did little beyond monitoring the problem.

Raytheon has already begun testing of a system to clean up the contamination on its own property, which is no longer being used by the company and has been put up for sale. Raytheon spokesman Robert Luhrs said he's hopeful that part of the cleanup can go full-bore starting next month.

Extent of toxic plume in St. Petersburg neighborhood identified 01/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 16, 2009 12:11am]
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