ST. PETERSBURG — Florida environmental officials have approved the plan Raytheon submitted for cleaning up the pollution that has spread beneath the Azalea neighborhood, they announced Thursday.
Under the 2,000-page plan, Raytheon would zap the toxic plume with a combination of electrodes and chemicals designed to neutralize the pollution, and sink new cleanup wells throughout the area to pump what's left of the pollution out.
Raytheon has already pumped out, cleaned and disposed of about 28 million gallons of contaminated groundwater from beneath its former plant at 1501 72nd St. N near Tyrone Square Mall, according to the announcement from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"Our technical team, along with the U.S. EPA, took the time needed to review and ultimately approve a proposed plan that will address the contaminants of concern, and meet the stringent state cleanup rules,'' said Pamela Vazquez, interim director of the DEP office in Tampa:
"I'm happy to see this happen," said Nancy Sher, an Azalea neighborhood resident who has been involved in the pollution investigation. "I feel they should have started cleaning up on the outskirts first before cleaning up the plant area."
The main part of Raytheon's plan calls for expanding its current pump-and-treat system to collect polluted groundwater from a network of wells.
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 can take much longer, depending on the type and amount of chemicals, the amount and depth of the polluted groundwater and the type of soil and rock in the area.
''We look forward to expanding remediation efforts as quickly and efficiently as possible," Raytheon spokesman Jonathan Kasle said.
Raytheon expects most -- 97 percent -- "can be removed and treated in three years," he said.
Raytheon also plans to build facilities to heat the groundwater to break down the pollution, and then to treat it with chemicals that will break it down further. The treated water would be disposed of through the city sewer lines, according to the company.
The company says it hopes to begin work later this year. This will be Raytheon's third attempt to root out the pollution spilled by its predecessor, E-Systems.
The factory, built in the 1950s, has long been used for manufacturing electronic components.
Construction of the Pinellas Trail first uncovered the contamination. In 1992, E-Systems excavated 85 to 90 cubic yards of soil. In 1994, E-Systems discovered a storage tank containing toxic materials, so the company dug up another 14 tons of soil.
Raytheon took over the property in 1995.
Although Raytheon and DEP officials knew by 1999 the pollution had gone beyond the plant, they failed to notify residents until 2008. By then the waste had spread, contaminating 19 irrigation wells out of 352 checked.
"It's ridiculous it's taken as long as it has to get it cleaned up," said Ned McWilliams, one of the attorneys representing residents pursuing a lawsuit against Raytheon.
Although irrigation wells around the Azalea neighborhood located contamination exceeding safe levels, the state Department of Health and a University of Florida expert working for the DEP found no health risks from the contamination.