LARGO — Rick Rudloff joined his wife and a friend for a brisk walk through Largo Central Park Nature Preserve on Monday morning. It's something they weren't able to do on their trip to Largo last year.
In the fall of 2010, the city closed the entire park to complete a project on the preserve's stormwater treatment pond. Much of the park reopened just last week, but parts are still closed because of arsenic contamination.
"We come down every winter for a few months," said Rudloff, 69, who is from Morrisville, Pa. "We love this park."
Work on the pond was finished months ago, but the city wasn't able to reopen the park until Jan. 10, said Greg Brown, the city's parks superintendent. That's because his department lost half a position and didn't have enough staff to maintain the facility.
Park patrons weren't happy.
"People have been begging us for a long time to reopen it," Brown said.
He approached the city manager for permission to open portions of the preserve after several incidents of vandalism. Vandals broke into the restrooms and another building, burned a plastic picnic table, broke an otter statue and stole a water fountain and a metal grate used to filter trash.
Now, the park is partially maintained by inmate crews. About once a month, they edge the trails and trim the trees. But Brown still needs volunteers for other tasks, such as picking up trash or opening the front gate in the mornings.
Meanwhile, fences block off the preserve's observation tower and walking paths near the back of the park. They've been closed since late 2008 because of high concentrations of arsenic in the soil.
Arsenic was found throughout the preserve at varying levels, but the tower area was identified as the hot spot. Soil tests near the tower showed one spot measured 138 parts per million, more than 11 times Florida's target level for cleanup of arsenic in industrial areas.
Those tests came months after the Florida Department of Environmental Protection told the city that it might not have done enough to protect the public from exposure to arsenic at the preserve. The news surprised officials, who thought they had resolved the problem years earlier.
Arsenic can be toxic, but the likelihood and degree of harm is related to exposure, experts say. The mere presence of arsenic does not mean there's a health risk.
Parts of the preserve were used as a landfill from the 1960s through about 1984. And portions of the property may have been used for agriculture. Officials think some of the contamination may be from naturally occurring background levels or past uses. But, they say, high levels of arsenic near the tower are likely linked to its construction. It was built with pressure-treated wood, which historically contained arsenic.
Last spring, the city of Largo sent an extensive report to the DEP. It included the results of tests for contaminants throughout the preserve.
"We're still waiting to hear back from them on their review of what we submitted," said city engineer Leland Dicus.
In the meantime, they're working with a consultant to come up with a plan to deal with the contaminants.
Ana Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said the department has been working with the city and provided verbal direction to remove soil in areas of the highest arsenic concentrations. It also acknowledged that more sampling would be needed to complete the site assessment, which must be done before a cleanup plan can be finalized. The 31-acre park is teeming with wildlife. Otters, alligators and more than 100 species of birds live there.
On Monday, Bob Fritts, a snowbird from Bethalto, Ill., strolled the boardwalk around the stormwater treatment pond. He pointed out a turtle, a fish and a couple of birds.
"I like to walk around the lake," Fritts said. "You can see fish swimming and birds hunting."
He also noted an assortment of plastic cups, soda cans and bait buckets littering the water. "It's not as clean as it used to be," he said.
Reach Lorri Helfand at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to submit a letter to the editor.