ST. PETERSBURG — State health officials say it's all right to sprinkle lawns or fill swimming pools with irrigation well water from the Azalea neighborhood where toxic contamination from the Raytheon factory has spread.
But they're not so sure about breathing.
Next month the Florida Department of Health will begin testing the air inside the homes and apartments over the area with the most contamination to see if there are any toxic vapors.
In the meantime, state environmental regulators want Raytheon to produce a plan to start cleaning up the toxic contamination first discovered on its property 17 years ago.
"We hope this is something the community can take some comfort in," state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Pamala Vazquez said Tuesday.
Azalea residents will get a chance to quiz Raytheon and state officials about the contamination and cleanup in a community meeting today at 6 p.m. at the Pasadena Community Church.
At that meeting, health officials will be looking for at least 10 people who would say yes to testing the air inside their homes or ground-floor apartments, said Gayle Guidash of the Pinellas County Health Department.
Health officials are concerned about the possibility of vapors from contaminants, now flowing toward Boca Ciega Bay, migrating up into houses, she said.
"If there's a crack in the foundation, there's a potential for volatile organic chemicals to intrude," Guidash said. "Then if the home is closed up, the residents can breath that in."
So health officials want to run 12-hour tests on the air in homes and apartments on property where the irrigation wells have already tested positive for contaminants from Raytheon, she said.
The water from those irrigation wells, however, does not pose a public health threat, health officials have determined. That's because the contamination level isn't high enough, and there are no obvious pathways for the contaminants to get into a human body since no one is drinking it.
"Even if you bathe in it or put it in your pool and swim in it, it isn't enough to pose a threat," Guidash said.
Bill Rutledge, an Azalea resident whose well tested positive for contamination, said he's not that concerned about the air in his house. "I won't be concerned about any exposure through the air until I see some of the testing come back," he said.
And Marge Culkin, president of the Stone's Throw condominium association, said she worried that the call for air testing might set off a panic she did not believe was warranted.
Workers first discovered the contamination by cancer-causing chemicals in 1991 near the intersection of 22nd Avenue and 72nd Street N.
The pollution originated from a drum storage area on land that then belonged to a company called E-Systems. Tests found a plume of chemicals — including vinyl chloride, trichloroethene, 1,4 Dioxane and cis-1,2-Dichloroethene. — in the groundwater beneath the site 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." Last year, tests showed the plume moving under residential neighborhoods near Azalea Park, but most residents were not notified about it until recently.
In May, Gov. Charlie Crist called DEP Secretary Mike Sole to ask what his agency has done — and not done — to deal with the 17-year-old pollution problem.
"I told him, 'You need to get on this,' " Crist said.
Tests have found at least a dozen private irrigation wells that are contaminated by the plume so far. Raytheon spokesman Jonathan Kasle said the company is happy that the Health Department tests have declared the wells no threat, which is exactly what Raytheon has been saying all along.
Kasle would not comment on the DEP's call for the company to produce a cleanup plan prior to tonight's meeting. However, DEP documents show that Raytheon has already promised to produce such a plan "within the next few weeks."
The DEP is also telling Raytheon to install a monitoring well at Azalea Elementary School "to verify that the contamination has not migrated westward onto school property."