LARGO — The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has weighed in on the city's plans to clean up arsenic contamination in Largo Central Park Nature Preserve, nine months after the city submitted its cleanup plans for approval.
The department's answer: We approve. But you're not done yet.
The department wants soil tests done on some private properties around the preserve.
The DEP approved the city's plan to remove soil around the preserve's observation tower, which has been identified as an "arsenic hot spot." The observation tower, built from pretreated lumber, has been closed since late 2008, and sawdust from its construction has been mentioned as a possible source of the contamination. Soil tests near the tower have found levels of arsenic more than 11 times higher than the state's recommended level.
The city plans to remove and replace the top 6 inches of soil around the tower. City Engineer Leland Dicus said the staff hopes to clear the contaminated soil out before summer rains turn the area into wetlands. If that happens, it could be another year before the observation tower and nearby walkways could be reopened.
The DEP also wants Largo to conduct additional testing on non-city properties around the nature preserve, for both arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene, a chemical substance found in automobile exhaust, tar and asphalt.
Arsenic can be toxic, but the likelihood and degree of harm depends on the amount of exposure. The mere presence of arsenic does not create a health risk. Benzo(a)pyrene is suspected of causing cancer in humans, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Both substances have been found in soil in the nature preserve, and the DEP wants additional testing on the adjacent properties of Missing Links Driving Range and Everest University, both on East Bay Drive. Parts of the 31-acre nature park and surrounding lands were used as a landfill from the 1960s through the early 1980s.
Dicus said the city staff is mulling its options on the non-city properties.
"We're still evaluating how we would need to proceed in those areas," he said. "The letter does seem to suggest that they're asking for sampling off Largo property."
The DEP sent its letter to Largo Feb. 17, nearly nine months after the city sent its cleanup plan for state approval. The long lag time is nothing new in the discussion of contamination of the nature preserve. In 2008, the DEP told city management it needed to do more testing on soil and groundwater in the nature preserve. That notice came four years after Largo submitted its previous cleanup actions for state approval.
The former landfill site has long been the subject of testing. The EPA conducted several tests there in the early 2000s and decided not to classify it as a Superfund site. It forwarded its findings to the DEP, though, kicking off a decade-long back-and-forth between the city and the state over the nature preserve, which opened in 2002.
Parts of the nature preserve have been closed since 2008, and the entire park was closed from 2010 until January due to a project on a stormwater treatment pond. The park, home to alligators, otters and more than 100 species of birds, is located at 150 Highland Ave. SE, just south of East Bay Drive, and is open daily from 6:30 a.m. until one hour before sunset.
If the city staff can get the soil in contaminated areas removed, and get a final okay from the DEP, the entire nature preserve could be open to the public sometime this year, Dicus said. But he stopped short of setting a timeline. He hopes to have a better idea of the timetable for a presentation to the City Commission in April.
"Hopefully, the end is in sight," Dicus said.
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.