ST. PETERSBURG — Cleaning up the toxic mess at the Raytheon plant won't be easy.
Since its discovery in 1991, the plume of contamination has slowly spread beneath the Azalea neighborhood, reaching at least the edge of Azalea Elementary School. Now, with everyone from Gov. Charlie Crist to Sen. Bill Nelson demanding action, Raytheon officials say it will begin a preliminary cleanup.
"We will begin pump-and-treat activities on the grounds of the Raytheon facility," company spokesman Jonathan Kasle told the St. Petersburg Times.
The state Department of Environmental Protection gave the company until Aug. 31 to submit a more complete assessment of the contamination. Raytheon, which has put its property on the market, must then submit a full cleanup plan for the whole area within 90 days.
Although the details of how it will work are unclear, pump-and-treat is a standard method for dealing with chemical spills. The company would sink wells into the groundwater that's contaminated and pump it into holding tanks and to be cleaned. Ultimately it would be shipped to a sewer plant.
Meanwhile, as the contaminated water is pumped out, clean groundwater would flow in to fill the space left behind, thereby diluting the remaining pollution.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has used pump-and-treat at over 500 Superfund sites, it tends to be a slow, painstaking process. The typical pump-and-treat operation takes at least five years.
But it can take much longer, depending on the type and amount of harmful chemicals present, the size and depth of the polluted groundwater and the type of soil and rock in the area.
This will be Raytheon's third attempt to root out the pollution spilled by its predecessor, E-Systems.
Construction of the Pinellas Trail first uncovered the contamination from a drum storage area that had been used since the 1960s. In 1992. E-Systems excavated 85 to 90 cubic yards of soil from the spot and hauled it away, filling the hole with clean dirt. In 1994, E-Systems discovered an underground storage tank containing toxic materials, so the company dug up another 14 tons of soil and carted it off.
Raytheon took over the property in 1995. In February 1999, its environmental consultant said the plume appeared to be stable. However, in August 1999, Raytheon met with DEP officials to discuss signs that it had spread beyond Raytheon's boundaries.
So far, 13 irrigation wells around the Azalea neighborhood have been found to have contamination exceeding safe levels. However, the state Department of Health and a University of Florida expert working for the DEP have found no health risks from the contamination.