ST. PETERSBURG — An underground plume of toxic waste is migrating toward Boca Ciega Bay, causing alarm in residential neighborhoods west of the Tyrone area.
Numerous residents worried about contamination, health risks and property values have filed two class-action lawsuits against Raytheon Co., owner of the site where the contamination was first discovered.
Many homeowners in the Azalea and Jungle Prada areas are concerned about irrigation wells they use to water their lawns.
The clouds contain several toxins — lead, toluene, vinyl chloride, dioxane and trichloroethylene — whose effects can vary from dizziness to death, according to reports by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
"That's a real nice toxic soup, some of which are banned substances," said Jim Gore, a professor of environmental science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "If it's above a health level, there's a risk. If there's 1 percent risk and you're the one person, you have 100 percent risk."
Mike Papantonio, an attorney in the complaint filed April 11, said Raytheon and the DEP have been "incapable of addressing the problem in a responsible way."
"It's like throwing garbage into a neighbor's yard," Papantonio said. "This is a situation where a corporation says it's too expensive to get rid of this problem in a way that's civically responsible, and we have a department that allows us to pump it into neighbors' yards."
Health concerns and depressed real estate values also concern his clients, said Joseph Saunders, the attorney on the complaint filed April 14, because of the "stigma of being in a contamination zone."
Contamination at the site was discovered in 1991 during the construction of the Pinellas Trail. In 1994, hazardous waste from a sewer system tank was also found in the groundwater and soil.
Specializing in communication and defense electronics manufacturing, Raytheon bought the St. Petersburg facility from E-Systems in April 1995. In March 1995, the DEP agreed to transfer cleanup responsibility to E-Systems in a consent order after an investigation.
Since 1996, Raytheon has tested wells on its site, but has still not delivered a final report, according to DEP documents. The deadline is now May 31.
DEP documents from March and September 2007 found groundwater data exceeding health-based cleanup target levels at Azalea Park, Brandywine Apartments and Stone's Throw Condos, among other areas.
Effects depend on the exposure levels and whether exposure was waterborne or airborne. Gore said high enough concentrations of many of the chemicals can be very dangerous.
Dominick D. Griesi, president of the Azalea Neighborhood Association, has lived in the affected area since 1993. He said he first heard about the situation three weeks ago on the news and that the neighborhood has since held several meetings to deal with residents' concerns.
"We're trying to get to the bottom of and extent of the damage," Griesi said. "We had 110 people at the meeting last Thursday and they were not happy with anyone. They deceived people by not telling us. I feel it was their obligation, if there was a problem, to notify us."
Raytheon has hired a third-party company, Arcadis, to test irrigation wells in the neighborhoods to figure out how far the plume has migrated in a southwest direction, Griesi said. Arcadis performed much of the onsite testing for Raytheon since the early 1990s, according to DEP documents.
Arcadis project manager Gus Suarez referred all media inquiries to Jack Radgowski, who is in charge of community relations for Raytheon. He declined to comment.
Pamala Vazquez, external relations manager for the DEP in Tampa, declined requests for comments on the lawsuits, since "we are not involved in them," and also declined to speak on anything regarding Raytheon.
"We will hold off until we have the chance to look at the report and see the full assessment," Vazquez said. "Meanwhile we will deal directly with citizens. We just want to remain focused on regulatory responsibilities."
Azalea resident Nancy Sher has to deal with the impact of those responsibilities. The plaintiff in the April 11 lawsuit, Sher, said the process "can go to the very depths of emotions."
"People fear the unknown, and the unknown is all that we know in regard to the toxic waste," Sher said.
Her lawyer, Papantonio, said the next step will be to bring in independent scientists to begin their own testing, which will probably begin by the end of the month.