SUN CITY— Shannon Fitzpatrick remembers seeing vapor spew from the machine shop across the street from her home on Old U.S. 41, but she never thought twice about what could be in it.
"I saw steam coming out of there," Fitzpatrick said. "I thought it was just water mist."
By the time Fitzpatrick moved in six years ago, the fumes may have been harmless. But from 1975 to 1998, the J.J. Seifert Machine Co. used a vapor degreaser containing tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, according to state and federal officials. The chemical has been linked to cancer and liver ailments when consumed by humans at certain levels for prolonged periods.
Neighbors said the shop has been shut down for at least six months. They said government workers swarmed over the rural neighborhood surrounding the shop at U.S. 41 and Vidor Avenue earlier this year, testing water in private wells and in some cases supplying filters to remove contaminants.
Steve Huard, spokesman for the Hillsborough branch of the Florida Department of Health, said workers sampled 25 wells within 500 feet of the shop.
Testing turned up eight tainted wells, including the one used by Fitzpatrick and seven other family members in her home. The state supplied filters for her well and four others. Owners of the other three wells have not responded to an offer of free filters, Huard said.
Now residents have a chance to comment on state recommendations that include continued use of filters on wells with unsafe levels of PCE, at least until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency comes up with a cleanup plan under the federal Superfund program. Comments are due by Nov. 21 to the Health Department.
Dora Hernandez and her son Rudy Flores live near the shop. Testing at their house turned up no contamination, and state officials promised to retest periodically. Hernandez said she is satisfied with the government's response.
Fitzpatrick, who lives three doors away from the Hernandez family, said state workers installed an apparatus on her family's well about three weeks ago and left a box of filters. The filters clog so quickly that the family has swapped them out three times in two weeks, she said.
State officials have promised to supply filters until the federal government works with the property owner to develop a cleanup plan, but Fitzpatrick said she's not content with that solution.
"Not really," she said last week. "Not with everybody still getting sick."
She is worried that her family of eight, some of whom have lived at the home for eight years, may have developed health problems from using their well water. She said the water was so bad that the state put the family up in a hotel for two days while they worked on the well. Workers told them not to use unfiltered water, even for showers.
Fitzpatrick said she wants officials to determine whether the contamination could have caused ongoing health problems, including migraine headaches, nausea and speech problems in her 5-year-old son.
Huard said people would have to consume huge amounts of the harmful chemicals to experience any health problems, and he doubted the illnesses described by Fitzpatrick stemmed from the machine shop pollution.
"Is it possible? Anything is possible," Huard said. "Is it likely? It sounds kind of unlikely."
He said the Health Department will keep testing wells near the machine shop. How often they test will depend upon factors including the wells' depth and proximity to the pollution.
The state report recommends that the EPA conduct tests to determine whether contaminants could enter homes by vapor seeping up from groundwater. It does not recommend soil testing because the solvents involved tend to evaporate or sink into groundwater, not linger in soil, according to a fact sheet distributed to neighbors.
The EPA announced in January it would start working to address the pollution using Superfund money after determining that the property owner was financially unable to do so.
EPA engineer James Hou said in an e-mail that the federal agency already studied and ruled out vapor intrusion into homes. He said the EPA plans to install more groundwater monitoring wells in the next few months and propose a long-term cleanup strategy by early 2013.
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.