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NAACP challenges Hernando County's plan to clean up contaminated site

BROOKSVILLE — For more than two decades, county officials have known about contamination at the county's former department of public works compound in south Brooksville.

After years of inaction and then lengthy and expensive testing, cleanup of petroleum by-products, arsenic and other substances finally seemed possible with the approval of a plan by state environmental regulators earlier this month.

But now the local NAACP and its national counterpart are challenging the cleanup plan.

County officials have agreed to a January meeting with Hernando NAACP president Paul Douglas, the residents of Mitchell Heights — the community adjacent to the site — and officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

County officials have agreed to delay publishing a required notice about their state cleanup approval until after the meeting, which gives Mitchell Heights residents and the NAACP time to file a challenge to the approval.

Such a challenge would take months or longer to resolve.

Douglas says the contamination might not end at the borders of the county site and could have spread through Mitchell Heights.

George Foster shares that theory. He is president of Creative Environmental Solutions, the firm to which the county awarded a site testing contract in 2005.

Foster said a ditch built on the county site routed stormwater from the contamination location and through the community, possibly depositing contaminants in a much larger zone.

Foster wanted to test a wider area of the community off the county's site, but the county wouldn't approve that, Douglas said.

The original unbid $77,051 award to Creative Environmental Solutions blossomed into a job that has cost the county more than $2 million.

In 2008, county officials decided that they would seek competitive proposals for the next phase of work, and Foster said he had been treated badly and blackballed by the county. Officials said they were not satisfied with the plan Foster submitted this summer and decided to hire Cardno TBE in July.

County officials said the Foster plan was unacceptable because it consisted primarily of fencing the site and long-term monitoring of contamination in water and soil there. Missing was a menu of other options if the original plan didn't work, something the DEP suggested as a way for the county to not have to seek additional permissions as it proceeded with the cleanup.

Douglas said that the south Brooksville neighborhood has been the victim of what the NAACP calls "environmental racism.'' All over the country, industries, businesses and compounds that can pollute have been located near neighborhoods mostly inhabited by minority residents because they have no power, Douglas said.

Nationally, the NAACP helps with environmental justice cases just like south Brooksville, he said.

Previously, the Mitchell Heights residents had filed challenges to the completion of testing on the site but those were thrown out by the state because the challenges did not meet state criteria.

Douglas said he has questions about why the county rejected the Foster plan and other questions about Cardno TBE's proposal.

That proposal includes a variety of approaches, including maintaining concrete pads on portions of the site to prevent contact with the pollution. Soil removal, use of a chemical oxidant and monitoring also are part of the plan.

Douglas said he knew the county would be reluctant to expand the boundaries of the actual contamination site because that could cost millions of dollars. Yet the county knew contamination existed within the neighborhood. Last year, the county bought the homes of two Mitchell Heights residents adjacent to the site and secured releases from the owners who promised not to sue the county.

While the county had ordered some shallow testing in other locations in Mitchell Heights, Douglas said actual soil borings are needed to determine whether there are contaminants in the deeper soil. Other residents also might have high levels of arsenic or other pollutants in the soil like the two whose homes were purchased.

"You can't live on a contaminated site,'' Douglas said.

"We're saying to the county, 'Give us an opportunity or you go into the community and disprove anything that George Foster is saying,' " he said.

Douglas said it was important the community gets answers on the contamination, and the challenge to the remedial action plan is the way for the NAACP to accomplish that.

"We're not trying to hinder this,'' Douglas said. "We just want to make sure that it is cleaned to the benefit and advantage of the community and not just the county.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

NAACP challenges Hernando County's plan to clean up contaminated site 12/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 8:28pm]

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