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Plant has a dirty history

ST. PETERSBURG — Art Alling remembers dumping the hazardous chemicals out, pouring them into a ditch behind what is now the Raytheon plant in St. Petersburg's Azalea neighborhood.

"We dumped those chemicals purposely and willfully," Alling, 69, of Gulfport, said Friday. "All the chemicals from all over the plant were brought there to be dumped."

Raytheon officials this week submitted to the state a new plan for trying to clean up the mess left by all that dumping by E-Systems and its predecessors before Raytheon bought the plant near Tyrone Square Mall. The plan includes pumping the contamination out of the ground through five wells, three of them along the edges of the Azalea Recreation Center's ballfields.

The contaminated groundwater would then be pumped over to a treatment system on the Raytheon property, so all the cancer-causing chemicals can be cleaned out of it. What was left would be piped into the city's sewer system.

State Department of Environmental Protection officials said they were studying the plan and had no comment on it yet.

Raytheon spokesman Jon Kasle said the company cannot estimate at this point how long the cleanup might take. However, he said Raytheon has figured out how the contamination had gotten into a nearby creek flowing into Boca Ciega Bay, and stopped it.

"We have identified an old deteriorated section of storm line (piping) just before the Raytheon stormwater enters the city storm system," he said in an e-mail Friday. "Contractors were onsite this morning to install inflatable bladders at both ends of this section of piping, effectively eliminating it from the drain system." A permanent fix will soon follow, he said.

The toxic waste dumped at the site has now spread underground throughout the Azalea neighborhood, contaminating 19 irrigation wells out of 352 checked by Raytheon's contractor, Arcadis.

The factory, built back in the 1950s, has long been used for manufacturing electronic components that produced a variety of toxic chemicals. For years the E-Systems management paid little heed to safe disposal, said Alling, who worked there from 1962 to 1987.

"We dumped everything down in a ditch behind the plant," he said.

After repeated complaints from the employees' union representatives about the health risk, Alling said, E-Systems poured a concrete slab and set out 55-gallon drums to hold the chemical waste — but it was mostly for show.

"The 55-gallon drums would fill up and spill over into the ditch," he said.

Then, in 1985, an explosion in the drum-storage area put an acid cloud over the factory and sent more than 70 people to a hospital, two of them with second-degree burns. It also exposed the company's disposal methods to official scrutiny.

But not until the construction of the Pinellas Trail in 1991 near the plant did the underground contamination come to light. At that point it appeared to be confined to E-Systems' own property. When Raytheon bought E-Systems in 1995, it inherited the pollution headache but did little beyond monitoring the problem.

In a February 1999 report, Arcadis said the plume of contamination under Raytheon appeared to be stable. But six months later, tests showed that the plume had spread off-site. More recent testing found that it goes more than 70 feet deep and has spread to the edge of the Azalea Elementary School campus.

However, neither Raytheon nor the DEP notified Azalea residents about the contamination until this year. The pollution and the lack of notice prompted a class-action lawsuit filed by residents who said pollution sprayed from their irrigation wells had affected their health and property values. Mike Papantonio, an attorney on the case, said Raytheon and the DEP have been "incapable of addressing the problem in a responsible way."

So far the state Department of Health has found no connection between the contamination and any illness. Raytheon has offered to pay to convert contaminated private irrigation wells to alternate sources.

There are 10 contaminants in the toxic underground plume, according to Arcadis, but by far the predominant ones are a pair of cancer-causing chemicals called 1,4-dioxane and trichloroethene. The biggest challenge in cleaning up the site is the 1,4-dioxane "because it is difficult to treat," Arcadis noted. The company has told the DEP it will try two different treatment processes in its cleanup.

Staff researchers Will Gorham and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

Plant has a dirty history 08/29/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 5:26pm]

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