ST. PETERSBURG — Gov. Charlie Crist has personally intervened in the investigation of toxic contamination around the Raytheon plant in his hometown.
Crist called the head of the state Department of Environmental Protection, Mike Sole, last week to ask what his agency has done — and not done — to deal with the spreading pollution.
"I told him, 'You need to get on this,' " Crist said.
DEP officials have known since 1999 that cancer-causing chemicals had spread beyond Raytheon's property. Last year, tests showed the plume of contamination moving under residential neighborhoods near Azalea Park.
But until last month, nobody bothered to tell residents.
DEP officials say they followed state regulations to the letter, even though that left Raytheon's neighbors in the dark.
"That's not what we want," Crist said. "The regulations need to be improved."
The regulations — written by DEP — require the agency to notify only the owners of property where Raytheon drilled wells to check for contamination.
But the only place Raytheon drilled those wells was on the road right of way, said Deborah Getzoff, who runs the DEP's Tampa office.
As a result, the DEP repeatedly sent notification letters to St. Petersburg officials, since the city owns the roads, but not to homeowners who live along those roads, she said.
And the city didn't tell homeowners, either. A Raytheon spokesman refused to discuss why the company chose only those spots for testing.
Sole could not be reached for comment, but Getzoff acknowledged the DEP procedures might be flawed.
"I know the citizens are unhappy," she said.
Experts on contamination cases say it's not unusual that the bureaucracy fails to inform the people most affected.
"It's the buck passing that goes on at every level about everything," said Jim Gore, an environmental science professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "This is a political and regulatory problem as much as it is an environmental risk problem."
State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, has written Sole demanding answers.
"There was poor followup by the DEP, who had an opportunity to at least make residents aware," he said. "If you're going to err, err on the side of the community."
Now the DEP and Raytheon are scrambling to make up for the nine-year blackout.
The DEP set up a Web site to keep the public posted about cleanup plans, and Raytheon is sponsoring a community meeting on May 30 to discuss the latest contamination report, due that weekend.
"They've known about it for so many years and they've done basically nothing," said resident John Baker, one of 500 Azalea area residents who attended a neighborhood meeting two weeks ago.
Workers discovered the contamination in 1991 during construction of the Pinellas Trail, which runs near the Raytheon property. The pollution originated from a drum storage area on land that belonged to a company called E-Systems.
Tests found a plume of chemicals in the groundwater beneath the site, including vinyl chloride, trichloroethene, 1,4 Dioxane and cis-1,2-Dichloroethene. When Raytheon bought E-Systems in 1995, it inherited the pollution headache but did little beyond monitoring the problem.
In February 1999, Raytheon's consultants told the DEP that "plume containment has been achieved" by letting it dissipate naturally, so it posed "no imminent human health or ecological risk."
But six months later, in August 1999, DEP and Raytheon officials met to discuss the fact that the plume had spread "off-site." At that point, no state regulations required the DEP to notify anyone.
Six years would pass before the state sent out any letters.
In 2005, the DEP changed its regulations, then mailed letters to the owners of contaminated property directly adjacent the Raytheon site.
That included the city, which owns the Azalea Park recreational complex, and Pinellas County, as owner of the Pinellas Trail. It mailed letters again in 2007 and this spring.
City officials saw no reason to sound the alarm because the contamination did not affect anyone's drinking water, said Michael Connors, city internal services administrator.
An April 2008 phone log from the DEP's Tallahassee office reveals that a city employee called to ask if city officials needed to "do anything" about Raytheon. The DEP employee who called him back said "the letters were advisory and did not require any specific action on the city's part."
County officials couldn't find any 2005 letter in their records, said Parks and Recreation Department director Paul Cozzie. He agreed that Azalea residents deserved to be told.
"I would be upset too if I was relying on groundwater for irrigation purposes for my home," he said.
The DEP also mailed notices to the owners of the nearby Brandywine Apartments and Stone's Throw Condominiums in 2005, 2007 and 2008. No letters went to any of the apartment or condo residents, or any other adjacent property owners, until April. The owners of Stone's Throw could not be reached for comment.
Brandywine's owner, Apartment Investment and Management Co., had no records of any notification letters until early May, said spokeswoman Cindy Duffy. Apparently, the DEP mistakenly sent the letters to a Texas tax company that Brandywine's owner once hired for property appraisal work.
"We're not happy about the fact we didn't get the letters," Duffy said. "We made our residents aware that we were notified by the DEP in May, and we are eager to see the plan Raytheon is putting together. We want to stay involved and keep pressure on the situation so it can get resolved."
Recent tests have revealed at least eight private irrigation wells with contaminated groundwater.
One belongs to Virginia and Alfred Lydon, who have lived just blocks away from Raytheon for 54 years. Nobody had sent them any letters before the end of April.
"I think if they had initially gotten on top of it, it probably wouldn't have spread as far as it has," Mrs. Lydon said. "If Raytheon bought the property knowing the problem here, how could they not have known it was bound to accelerate?"
Two weeks ago, Raytheon offered to pay to convert contaminated private irrigation wells to alternate sources.
But Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist who worked on a similar polluted site in Manatee County, contends this is too little, too late. She cautions that Azalea residents interested in signing up for well conversions may find the agreement could cause them to lose their right to participate in a lawsuit.
"People will do that and think it's all over, but it's a way of quieting the community," she said.
How that silence has hurt unsuspecting people is what angers John Baker the most.
"We wouldn't have bought in the area three years ago. Now I'm stuck," Baker said. "Their double standard is, 'we're not going to cause a massive panic,' but who wants to live on toxic land? I don't care if I have to abandon our house, I'm not going to have my family there."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Dagny Salas can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8872. Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8530.