ST. PETERSBURG — Toxic dirt is sitting under the 86 acres that surround Tropicana Field. Dirt left over from an old municipal gas manufacturing plant.
Dirt so contaminated that it could cost millions of dollars, at least, to remove or clean. Dirt the city cannot afford to touch.
Have you heard this yet?
The dire warning isn't coming from the city, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection or area scientists.
It is the work of POWW, a group of 20 local taxpayers supported by 100 or so volunteers who oppose the Tampa Bay Rays' $1-billion waterfront stadium and redevelopment plan.
The group, formally known as St. Pete Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront, has emerged as the most organized and vocal critic of the Rays' plans and a possible November referendum. Its tactics and contentions have become increasingly aggressive, at times skirting a line between fact and speculation.
For now, that means warnings of possible contamination under Tropicana Field.
Tomorrow, the concern may be something else.
"We're trying to derail it anyway we can," said Hal Freedman, a leader of the group.
POWW says it is fighting three powerful St. Petersburg entities: the Rays, whom the group accuses of seeking to profit off a new stadium; Mayor Rick Baker, whom POWW believes is quietly championing the Rays' plans; and the Times', which the group says has failed to examine the ramifications of the proposal.
"The fourth estate has really dropped the ball," said former City Council member Kathleen Ford. "Thankfully, others have picked up the slack."
Who is POWW?
In the weeks after the Rays announced their stadium plans, team senior vice president Michael Kalt was asked to explain the proposal at all sorts of meetings.
One invitation stood out.
The Downtown Neighborhood Association had formed what it called a "baseball proposal committee." The group wanted to hear from Kalt.
Kalt knew convincing downtown residents may be tricky. He didn't know how tricky until he arrived.
Kalt likened it to a scene from a Star Wars movie in which the film's heroes are lured into a meeting with the evil Darth Vader.
"You walk in there and … they put the POWW all-stars on the ballpark evaluation committee," Kalt said. "I sat there and got yelled at."
The committee recommended opposing the project, and the neighborhood association board swiftly concurred.
POWW had flexed some muscle.
The loose-knit group already was forming in the days after the St. Petersburg Times revealed in November that the Rays had a plan to build a $450-million stadium at the site of Al Lang Field.
Environmental activist Lorraine Margeson met with local residents Bill Stokes, Rebecca Falkenberry, Peter Belmont and Karl Nurse to devise a plan to oppose the Rays.
"This is wrong," Margeson remembers saying. "We know it's wrong. What are we going to do to fight these important people?"
At the same time, semiretired information technology consultant Hal Freedman was complaining that the city had misled him during earlier discussions related to the future zoning of Al Lang, the proposed site of the Rays' stadium. He and others, namely Ford, formalized the group Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront.
Margeson made the group official during a Jan. 23 WMNF radio interview with Stokes, a radio regular who broadcasts as "Natural Bill."
Margeson, who previously ran for the City Council, argues environmental points. Ford, an attorney, takes on legal challenges and city actions. Freedman plays the role of the money man.
"The numbers don't make any sense," says Freedman, who believes redevelopment of Tropicana Field cannot adequately cover the cost of a new stadium, as the Rays insist. "I don't understand why the city needs so long to figure that out."
The group has made stickers and yard signs to rally its cause and has formed a political action committee ahead of a possible November referendum.
The kitchen sink
From the day news of the stadium broke, POWW members effectively have used any possible argument in their quest to kill the proposal.
The approach has met with some success.
Group members were among the first to question a confidentiality agreement signed between the Rays and the city regarding stadium negotiations.
City documents revealed that talks between the Rays and the city had taken place before a confidentiality agreement was signed. But city officials say they were of a general nature and did not involve a specific proposal.
POWW concerns about an artesian well at least 1,000 feet from the proposed stadium prompted a front-page story in the Tampa Tribune and several television reports. Team officials say the stadium proposal has no effect on the well.
Most recently, Ford says, the team is looking to profit off the naming rights agreement at a new stadium. At public meetings and in a private conversations, Ford said the San Francisco Giants were able to make $600-million off the naming rights to their stadium.
But according to the San Francisco Chronicle and a dozen other published reports, the Giants originally sold the naming rights for $50-million over 24 years. Eventually the deal grew to $58-million — or $2.42-million a year.
"Tell her to find a $600-million naming rights sponsor," said Kalt. "If she does. Done. We'll build the ballpark and split what's left over with taxpayers."
Ford also says the Rays violated an agreement with the city by not charging for parking in 2006 and 2007. The city is entitled to $1.02 per car parked to offset costs to upgrade air conditioning at Tropicana Field.
But the Rays and the city agreed to amend that contract, according to city records. The Rays made payments based on 2005 parking figures in both 2006 and 2007.
"It's patently false," Kalt said.
This week, POWW members cheered the extension of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg through 2013. Not because they are race fans, but because the race "may put a crimp in the Rays' plans for a new waterfront stadium," according to a POWW news release.
"Our best bet is to fight like dogs," said Margeson. "I don't want this ever to go to a vote."
Back to the soil
Margeson has taken to calling Tropicana Field "Pandora's asphalt box." Open it up to development, she says, and who knows what you might find.
But city officials and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection say it is clear what's under Tropicana Field.
Kalt says the back and forth is another example of POWW stretching the truth.
Extensive testing during the original dome construction revealed an area of contaminated soil just east of Booker Creek, city and state officials say.
City internal services administrator Mike Connors said the contamination was so modest that regulators allowed the city to leave it soil in place, but the city decided to haul it away.
"A very modest amount of material remains there and is being monitored," Connors said.
The DEP agreed to the plan with the understanding the land would be covered with asphalt, spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said, and would not necessarily take a different view if the asphalt lots became concrete buildings. In general, though, a residential use is treated differently than a commercial one, she said.
In any case, Connors said, the city will insist to developers the city's potential liability is capped. A deal is unlikely if a developer doesn't agree, he said.
If true, it would effectively end Margeson's contention that the city could be left with a bill for millions of dollars.
But likely not her argument.