BROOKSVILLE — The locomotives that used to stop along Smith Street are but a fading memory to most residents in south Brooksville. But to those who live in the area, the legacy those trains left behind hasn't been pretty.
Neighbors remember that for years, a hard rain would cause the area to be covered with an oily sheen created from oil and fuel spilled from bulk storage tanks owned by petroleum companies. Although those sites were cleaned up several years ago, some residents believed that other dangers still lurked beneath the ground.
Those concerns were realized last month when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection released its report detailing a monthlong investigation into possible arsenic contamination in soil surrounding the former S&B Gulf Oil site on Smith Street.
While samples revealed mainly low to moderate levels of arsenic on the property itself, significantly higher readings were found on the city's right-of-way along Smith Street as well as at the home owned by Rosa Lee Waddy, located across the street from the site.
Waddy's son, Richard Howell, said he wasn't surprised by the discovery. He maintains the largely African-American neighborhood has often been overlooked when it comes to health-related issues.
"I've suspected it for years," Howell said this week. "I've been telling the city and the DEP for years that they need to take samples from every property in the neighborhood. I think it's worse than they could ever imagine."
Howell, who serves on the Mitchell Heights Health Awareness and Restoration Board, said that of the 10 soil tests DEP performed on his mother's property, six had levels of arsenic higher than the agency considers acceptable.
Earth Systems, an environmental testing firm hired by the state, in August performed 16 separate bore tests at 2 and 5 feet below the surface at the S&B site. The highest arsenic level reading on the property was 6.4 milligrams per kilogram of soil. The acceptable level is 2.1 milligrams per kilogram.
Twenty-five bore tests were done on the Waddy property as well as the Smith Street right-of-way. The highest readings came at the 5-foot depth and included a reading of 5.97 milligrams per kilogram near the house.
According to Brooksville Public Works Director Richard Radacky, the tests seem to indicate that the worst arsenic contamination occurred at greater depths.
"My guess is that over time, the stuff tends to just sink into the ground," Radacky said.
In addition to soil sampling, Earth Systems also conducted groundwater tests, but found no significant levels of arsenic in any water supply.
The S&B site has a long history of environmental troubles. The wholesale petroleum facility once owned by longtime Hernando politician Chuck Smith closed in 1993 after its owners filed for bankruptcy. Despite an order for the new owners and Smith were to pay to clean up the site, taxpayers wound up footing the bill.
Radacky said he hasn't been told the source of the arsenic, but wouldn't be surprised if it came from the S&B site.
"The way they handled chemicals back then was pretty unsafe a lot of the time," Radacky said.
What happens next is somewhat uncertain. Unlike the county's former public works site, which is nearby and has been embroiled for decades in controversy over its own water and soil contamination, the role of the government is unclear.
Radacky noted that some of the soil was removed years ago from the S&B site. For now, he said, more testing will be done to assess the extent of the arsenic contamination.
Pointing out that arsenic naturally occurs in soil, Radacky said the depth of the arsenic indicates it may be less of a threat to public health as it is unlikely that people will come into contact with it at 5 feet below the surface.
The neighborhood also is on city water service and residents do not rely on private wells for drinking water.
Howell says he's weighing his options as to what to do with his family's house. Ultimately, it may need to be condemned, he said.
"I'm not sure you could ever make it safe enough," Howell said. "Right now, I'm afraid to let my grandkids play in the yard."
State DEP spokeswoman Jennifer Stan Diaz said Wednesday that more data is required to determine the extent of arsenic in the area before mitigation activities are determined. More samples at the site will be taken starting in November.
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or email@example.com.