BROOKSVILLE — State and county officials this week took their three-year cleanup plan for the contaminated former public works compound in south Brooksville to residents who want more.
Neighbors at Thursday night's community meeting clamored for more tests for possible pollutants and the inclusion of the entire Mitchell Heights community as part of the contaminated zone.
"The fact is that the Department of Public Works contaminated that whole neighborhood,'' said longtime south Brooksville advocate Richard Howell. "Piecemeal is not going to be enough.''
For two decades, the county has known that the former activities at the compound at 201 W Martin Luther King Blvd. contaminated soil and water there. Paint, petroleum products and various chemicals were dumped or leached into the ground.
Hernando County has spent millions of dollars testing at the compound and at several sites in the community, leading to several cleanup efforts including removing contaminated dirt and replacing it with clean fill. Two homes in the neighborhood were bought and razed when chemical levels there were found to be unacceptable.
Residents described how they see the sheen of oil in water that stands on their property after flowing from the compound. They spoke about generations of health problems from high rates of cancer to miscarriages they blame on the arsenic and other chemicals they believe originated at the county's site.
Susan Goebel, the county's transportation services director, and Nell Tyner, waste cleanup manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, insisted that tests have located all the areas of contamination.
Howell and other residents said the county had used "smoke and mirrors'' to hide the truth of the wider contamination throughout the residential neighborhood.
The chemicals and petroleum products documented on the compound, "that same poison ran through those yards as well,'' Howell said.
His comments were mirrored by Paul Douglas, president of the Hernando chapter of the NAACP.
While everyone expects that the public works compound will be cleaned up, "I've always said that we need to get out in that community,'' Douglas said.
Last year, the county completed a final remediation plan that includes removing more affected soil off site, capping the site with fill or asphalt, and using chemical oxidants to treat contamination. Testing and monitoring will be part of all those processes as the work continues over the next two to three years, officials told the group.
After the cleanup is completed, the site might be available for some sort of community purpose or possibly a developer could be encouraged to build an office or recreational facility on the site, Goebel said.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection approved the remediation plan last year, Tyner explained.
Now the county must publish a notice that the DEP is about to issue the permit, which allows anyone who wants to challenge the plan to request a hearing before an administrative law judge.
Several challenges have already been filed even though the notice has not yet been published. All will be considered after the 21-day comment period after the notice has ended, according to Ana Gibbs, external affairs manager for DEP.
County Administrator David Hamilton urged the community to accept the cleanup plan for the compound. He also acknowledged the county is aware of the many other ongoing issues in the community and is trying to take them on one step at a time.
Hamilton admitted that the pace of government was frustrating and that "this project has been going on for an awful long time.''
Three and a half years ago, he recalled, he was new in the job and met with some of the same residents in the same meeting hall. They related their concerns about their neighborhood including the contaminated site.
"We've gotten some things done here because when I got here, I heard that nothing got done here,'' Hamilton said. "We're taking it one step at a time.''
He also referred to a racial discrimination complaint Howell recently filed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency regarding the neighborhood's historical treatment by local and state officials.
Hamilton asked residents not to mix that larger action with the support to finally get the public works compound cleaned up.
"In my world,'' he said, "I try to take it one chunk at a time. … I want to get this done.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.