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South Brooksville man files complaint alleging chemical contamination, racism

The county has begun infrastructure improvements in south Brooksville as part of a federal grant that city and county officials pushed to making much-needed upgrades. A resident has accused the city and county of covering up years of chemical contamination in the area.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

The county has begun infrastructure improvements in south Brooksville as part of a federal grant that city and county officials pushed to making much-needed upgrades. A resident has accused the city and county of covering up years of chemical contamination in the area.

BROOKSVILLE — Citing a long history of perceived mistreatment by local and state authorities, a south Brooksville resident has filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleging racial discrimination.

Richard Howell filed the complaint in July against the city of Brooksville, Hernando County, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Health, on behalf of himself and his neighbors.

Howell claimed the agencies allowed and permitted chemical contamination of the neighborhood, did not sufficiently clean up the problem and compensated residents for the impacts of the pollution, which include serious, ongoing health problems.

"This city of Brooksville and Hernando County have systematically pursued a course of smoke and mirrors over the years in an effort to avoid liability for their negligence in failing to protect the health of the citizens along Smith Street and other parts of the community,'' Howell wrote.

In an Aug. 23 letter to the parties named, Helena Wooden-Aguilar explains that her office is responsible for processing and investigating complaints alleging discrimination by programs or activities that receive financial assistance from the EPA.

The agency would review the complaint and decide whether to accept it, reject it or refer it to another federal agency, wrote Wooden-Aguilar, assistant director of the EPA's complaint program.

Howell's 18-page complaint detailed historical land uses in the African-American neighborhood that allowed fuel products and chemicals, including arsenic, to seep into the soil. He repeatedly noted that the action or inaction of government entities allowed the contamination to go on for years and to get worse.

The railroad that ran through south Brooksville used pesticides with arsenic to spray along the tracks for years. A wholesale petroleum facility on Smith Street had a long history of environmental problems, and Howell described how petroleum products would flow off the site "like a river'' and into neighbors' yards.

Last year, Howell's complaints brought a round of soil and water testing into the neighborhood. A testing firm hired by the state found higher than acceptable levels of arsenic in soil tests, including on the home site of Howell's mother, Rosa Lee Waddy. Her home is directly across the street from the former petroleum facility known as S&B Gulf Oil.

Water tests did not show elevated levels of arsenic.

Among other examples, Howell said south Brooksville established the neighborhood for African-American residents, and he cited the city's infamous history of lynchings to make his case for the racism aspect of the alleged ongoing mistreatment.

He suggested that the community has not been able to give input at various levels of the discussions about the contamination and noted that no African-Americans serve on the county's health advisory boards and subcommittees.

Howell's complaint also cited health statistics showing that the county's black citizens suffer a higher incidence of serious health concerns. He questioned why state health authorities have not done enough to address the question of why.

"We've been exposed to contaminants for years,'' Howell said Wednesday, adding that he knew of many cases of neighbors who have died of cancer. He blamed his own loss of a kidney and a portion of his second kidney on the chemicals that he said have surrounded him for years.

He said he wanted to see homes that were contaminated by polluted soil condemned and residents given what they deserve in return for years of mistreatment.

"People need restitution for all the harm that has been done,'' Howell said.

"The county cannot comment about pending litigation," said assistant county attorney Jeff Kirk.

Officials with the Hernando County Health Department are reviewing the complaint, and department spokeswoman Ann-Gayl Ellis said the agency takes the concerns of citizens very seriously. A recent study to determine possible health threats of ingesting soil at the site showed that is was "not likely to harm people's health,'' but additional tests were recommended.

The DEP has conducted an extensive study of the area around the former S&B Gulf Oil site, said press secretary Jennifer Diaz. The study determined that the arsenic on the residential lots did not come from the S&B site and that the levels of arsenic there did not pose a health threat, according to Tara Peavy Mitchell, the environmental specialist with the company that conducted the test.

The city attorney did not respond to requests to comment.

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

South Brooksville man files complaint alleging chemical contamination, racism 08/31/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 9:34pm]

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