ST. PETERSBURG — Raytheon will expand the area it is testing for cancer-causing chemicals and begin cleaning the most-contaminated groundwater around its factory as the first step in fixing pollution identified 17 years ago, a company official announced at a community meeting Wednesday evening.
The meeting came the same day news broke about a creek near the Raytheon property that showed signs of the same toxic contamination spreading underground through the Azalea neighborhood.
The creek contamination marks the first time any surface water pollution related to Raytheon has been detected.
The creek, which lies west of Azalea and drains into Boca Ciega Bay, has no known connection with the underground aquifer where the other contamination has been found, state Department of Environmental Protection District Director Deborah Getzoff said in an interview Wednesday. So the DEP is asking Raytheon to figure out where the contamination originated.
Meanwhile, state toxicologists and health officials insist the plume has never been a risk to human health. They say the odds the chemicals would cause cancer are less than one in a million.
Steve Roberts, a University of Florida professor under contract with the environmental protection department, said even children who played in or accidentally drank water from contaminated irrigation wells would not face a significant health risk.
Still, the several hundred residents from in and around the Azalea neighborhood were not placated. Dozens used the question-and-answer session to pose increasingly angry and pointed questions about their health, property values and why they weren't notified more quickly.
"As a father of three young boys, I have a pressing concern," said Bob Brumm, who lives on Second Avenue N. "How do you address that so we can use our homes as they were meant to be used, as a place of enjoyment?"
Contamination, first found in 1991, is believed to have come from a waste sludge pit or a leaky petroleum storage tank used by the site's previous owner, E-Systems. By 1999, the chemicals were found to have tainted groundwater under Azalea Park, the Stone's Throw condominiums and surrounding residences.
The public was not notified until last year, when the chemical plume showed signs of spreading further.
To determine definitively the extent of the pollution, groundwater under Azalea Elementary School and areas surrounding the existing chemical plume will be tested in the next few weeks.
The plan is a response to an environmental protection department requirement that Raytheon provide more information than was delivered in a May 30 site-assessment report. The DEP was not satisfied with Raytheon's findings on how much water was contaminated.
Updated results are due Aug. 31, and Raytheon must then submit a full cleanup program within 90 days.
So far, 13 irrigation wells have been found to have contamination that exceeds safe levels for drinking water. But even allowing for long-term, heavy exposure to the tainted water, Department of Health officials said the health risk is not great enough to cause concern. No medical tests are available to show how an individual has been affected, and samples of fruits and vegetables cultivated with tainted water have not yet been analyzed.
Despite assurances that the risks are extremely slight, residents are frustrated by the lack of clear answers.
"I feel like I might be at risk, but I'm not sure," said James Schattman, whose well was one of the 13 found to have significant contamination. "That's no comfort."
Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Andrew Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8150.