ST. PETERSBURG — Bill Rutledge takes his three children to Azalea Park near their home every week.
Right across the street sit the buildings of Raytheon Co. Since Rutledge found out contaminated groundwater courses underneath his property, that feels too close.
"Before, I figured Raytheon was a good thing for the community," Rutledge said. "Now I feel like I'm living next to a toxic waste dump."
Rutledge and five other residents west of the Tyrone area learned earlier this week that their irrigation wells are tainted by an underground toxic plume migrating off Raytheon's property toward Boca Ciega Bay.
As part of a site assessment report, Raytheon hired independent labs to test over 40 private irrigation wells near its facility over the past couple of weeks. Results were hand-delivered to residents on Tuesday.
Raytheon plans to test dozens of more wells in the area before the report is due May 31 to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
This is just the latest step to rein in growing worries after contamination reports surfaced in late March. Two weeks ago, nervous neighbors filed two class-action lawsuits against Raytheon, citing fears of health risks and decreased property values.
"Area drinking water has never been, and is not, an issue," Raytheon spokesman George Rhynedance wrote in an e-mail. Groundwater contamination in the six wells exceeds DEP drinking water standards, but Rhynedance said, "These wells do not supply drinking water and are not a threat to health if used for irrigation purposes."
The DEP and some other experts disagree.
Jim Gore, an environmental science professor at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, stressed how important it is for anyone with contaminated groundwater to stop using irrigation wells.
"Don't use this stuff to water your lawns, don't drink out of the hose, don't use the water to wash your car," Gore said. "If you're not showing any signs of disease, there's no need to run to your doctor, but you should do everything to minimize potential contact. Don't use the water anymore."
The DEP contacted the six homeowners in Rutledge's neighborhood Wednesday and asked them not to use their irrigation wells "in an abundance of caution" until Raytheon submits its report at the end of the month. Meanwhile, the DEP plans to work with the Department of Health to tackle long term risk factors, said Pamala Vazquez, DEP external relations manager.
After the DEP reviews the report, Raytheon has 90 days to come up with a cleanup plan if the DEP isn't satisfied with the results of the May 31 report.
"Our main concern is health cleanup and is anyone drinking this water. The answer is no since discovery of the pollution in the early 1990s," Vazquez said. "This is the first time sample results confirmed that there was impact to irrigation wells above state regulation levels in private single family homes."
The city is planning to mail letters next week to homeowners detailing the situation and what's being done, said Michael Connors, the city's internal services administrator. Connors has met with Raytheon officials and defines the boundaries where the plume resides as 22nd Avenue N to the north, Ninth Avenue to the south, 68th Street to the east and 76th Street to the west. About 150 homes and two multifamily complexes are in that area.
The original contamination was discovered at the facility in the early 1990s, and Raytheon removed the contaminated soil, Vazquez said. Elevated contaminant levels turned up in test wells at Stone's Throw Condominiums in April and July 1999.
Data from 2007 indicate the plume began migrating past Azalea Park and into the neighborhoods last summer, DEP documents say. The park uses reclaimed water, Connors said.
James Orr lives next to Bill Rutledge, but Raytheon test results as well as results from a lab the St. Petersburg Times hired to test his water both came back negative. Like Rutledge, Orr is in the process of relocating his family, a decision that came before reports surfaced about the plume. The Orrs have since stopped watering their lawn with well water.
The test results don't remove the fears that Orr said plagued him when he had his 22-month-old daughter, Tiffany, tested for the chemicals.
"We still have more questions than answers. The damage is already done, as far as perception is concerned," Orr said. "You go to the local store, and people are talking about how glad they are it didn't happen in their yard. Normally I'd ask people if they know anyone looking to buy a house, but now I can't because of the stigma."
So why does Rutledge's water show levels of trichloroethene, a known carcinogenic, at 43 parts per billion above DEP drinking water standards while the chemical was undetected in Orr's water next door?
It's possible the properties are at the edge of the plume, said Jim Dickson, a St. Petersburg attorney who teaches a legal studies class on groundwater contamination at Stetson University College of Law. Dickson, who has worked on Superfund sites in Tampa, said that while homeowners have every right to find out what's been going on, the data he's seen from Raytheon tests don't "indicate any significant risk of harm."
"These levels don't shock me," he said. "Yes, that's high, and it needs to be dealt with, but it doesn't fall into that category of a badly contaminated site."
Still, health risks increase because of accumulated exposure to the chemicals, said Gore. Some people, like the elderly and children, are more susceptible.
"Any one exposure is not likely to cause disease, but it's like a line of switches," Gore said. "Every time you are exposed, you flip a switch up, and the more times you are exposed, the more switches get flipped. It's not until they're all flipped up do you get a disease."
For his part, Rutledge said he's gone from feeling scared to angry and betrayed at Raytheon and the government agencies involved.
"Now that feeling of being safe in your home has been shattered," Rutledge said. "Experts still don't understand some long-term effects. We'll always be looking over our shoulder, because we won't really know about our health."
Dagny Salas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8872.