Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Opinion

Steinle: Legacy of Stauffer Superfund site a lesson to remember

A few years ago I spent a couple of hours walking around the former Stauffer Chemical site outside Tarpon Springs. Even if I hadn't known anything about the property, one look at the 130-acre swath of mostly bare land would have convinced me it was a dangerous place: Men dressed head to toe in white protective suits were standing guard over rusty barrels in an open, round concrete basin about the size of a city swimming pool.

The men were on fire watch. The barrels were filled with a substance that could ignite if exposed to air. Even the dirt I walked on could ignite if sufficiently disturbed, and it was laden with some 30 hazardous substances, including arsenic, heavy metals and radium. When I started to get in my car to leave, I saw that my shoes were covered with a white powder. I left them on the porch when I got home.

This land on Anclote Road just south of the Pasco County line borders the Anclote River. Perhaps it was a beautiful place once, but in 1947 Victor Chemical Co. built a plant there to burn phosphate ore and turn it into elemental phosphorus for use in foods, fertilizers and ammunition. The furnace produced toxic smoke and radioactive slag. The plant, purchased by Stauffer Chemical in 1960, shut down in 1981. In 1994, the property was declared a federal Superfund site, joining a list of the most contaminated places in the country.

Today, officials like to say that the Stauffer site has been "cleaned up." But "cleaned up" in federal government parlance means something completely different from what you and I would think. The contaminated soil — hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of it — wasn't removed. It's still right there, pushed into mounds and covered with a water-tight cap that supposedly will contain it indefinitely. Groundwater under the property, which is now fenced off with barbwire and covered with green grass, will be monitored for pollutants forever.

Few people who know the history of that land would want to hang out there, and no one will ever be allowed to live there. But pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, which now owns the site, and state and local government officials are eager to see the property put to some use. Pinellas commissioners briefly toyed with the idea of building a public marina and high-and-dry boat storage there. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency envisioned a green energy project, such as a solar array.

But some Pinellas state legislators are clearing the path for a company to open a manufacturing facility there. They got $2.5 million inserted in the state budget for "dredging, wharf stabilization and road improvements" at the site. Though they won't share the name of the company that is being wooed, they say it makes components for offshore oil drilling platforms and could use the Anclote River's direct access to the Gulf of Mexico to ship its products by barge. Legislators are eager for the company to bring new manufacturing jobs to North Pinellas.

It remains to be seen how nearby residents and others who know the property's history would react to new construction, river dredging and a manufacturing use on the property, and whether they would trust AstraZeneca and government regulators to properly protect the public during the Stauffer site's next chapter. A toxic legacy is buried there, and the public's well-being depends on that never being taken for granted.

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