The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Legislature have been called in to help repair damage caused by contamination near the Raytheon facility.
At Sen. Bill Nelson's request, the EPA will oversee cleanup of the cancer-causing chemicals polluting groundwater near the Azalea neighborhood, EPA spokeswoman Laura Niles said Monday.
And legislation is being drafted by state Sen. Charlie Justice that would require the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to notify the public of pollution hazards as soon as they are known.
The proposal would tighten up wording in the contamination notification statement that allowed the department to keep information about the pollution under wraps for nearly nine years.
"While we cannot turn back time, we can make it so this type of situation doesn't happen again," Justice said.
Justice appeared at a community meeting that Nelson held Monday at the Azalea Adult Community Center.
Nelson used the meeting to hear concerns from residents and to announce the request to the EPA.
His involvement stems from revelations that chemicals have spread to groundwater near Azalea Elementary School and into a stream that flows into Boca Ciega Bay, the first reported surface water contamination.
"The plume is now at the front door of the elementary school," Nelson said. "We have to make sure the kids and everybody else aren't exposed."
In all, 13 irrigation wells have been found to be contaminated beyond safe drinking water standards, and the chemical plume extends under Azalea Park, the Stone's Throw condominiums and surrounding residences.
Though the state Health Department has said there is no health risk from the contamination, residents are still worried and are angry they were not notified sooner.
At the meeting Monday, several residents expressed concerns about their health, their property values and their frustrations from the delayed information.
Contamination was first discovered near Raytheon in 1991.
The Department of Environmental Protection was notified in 1995, but word did not get to the public until this March.
Though details are not final, Justice's proposal would require the department to notify the public as soon as it is told of potential hazards, likely by telling elected officials or sending a news release to local media.
The EPA's role has not been finalized either.
Last week, Raytheon unveiled plans to begin treating the most contaminated water and conducting further testing to definitively find the extent of the pollution in the next few weeks.
Though the EPA does not have specific jurisdiction over the cleanup, it does have power to oversee Florida's Resource Conservation and Recovery Act program.
EPA officials will begin meeting with the Department of Environmental Protection as cleanup progresses.
Pamala Vazquez, external affairs manager for the DEP, said the department is prepared to follow the EPA's lead and cooperate fully.
"We'll wait and see what their interest is," Vazquez said. "We'll be there if and when they want more information."
Andrew Dunn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8150.