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A Times Editorial

DEP's lollygagging on toxins must end

Gov. Charlie Crist has picked up the phone and told his chief of environmental protection to wake up and smell the toxins.

The plume of groundwater contaminants surrounding the Raytheon plant in the Azalea Park region of St. Petersburg has been on the move, but state environmental regulators decidedly have not. Officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection have known since 1999 about the spread of the cancer-causing chemicals in the groundwater beyond Raytheon's property, but until recently the agency has failed to contact affected property owners and residents or make any serious effort to get Raytheon to act on containment and cleanup.

"You need to get on this," Crist recently told state DEP Secretary Michael Sole in a phone call.

So far, the agency has hidden behind feeble regulations of its own creation. These regulations require DEP to notify property owners of contaminants in the groundwater only where test wells are drilled. And surprise, surprise, when Raytheon drilled those wells in adjacent residential neighborhoods, it only bothered to test the water under the road right-of-way. As a result, notice of contaminated groundwater only had to be sent to the city of St. Petersburg since it owns the roads.

That means that, even as the DEP and Raytheon knew full well that chemicals like vinyl chloride, trichloroethene, and 1,4 Dioxane were being found in groundwater at potentially unsafe levels in surrounding neighborhoods, residents whose homes were just on the other side of the sidewalks abutting the tested areas were left uninformed. Raytheon was clearly doing its level best to keep area residents in the dark; why DEP allowed it and for so long is inexplicable.

While it is true that the water affected is not for drinking, some of it is used for irrigation, which is dangerous too, according to a USF environmental science professor. In recent tests at least eight private irrigation wells have been found contaminated with these pollutants.

Records reflect that for years there has been a back and forth between Raytheon and DEP with the company providing conceptual containment and remedial plans and the DEP taking years to consider and comment on them. All the while, the plume of contaminants has been slowly spreading.

Enough already. The problem worsens with every passing year, as the plume makes its way toward Boca Ciega Bay. Claims by company consultants that the plume will dissipate naturally have proved baseless. A real containment and cleanup plan needs to be implemented now, as the governor suggests. And it's time to change those loophole-riddled community notification regulations, so that no nearby property owners get surprised by information that the state has known for nearly a decade.

As Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, said in a recent letter to DEP's Sole, "it is the residents of my city — it is the people — who you serve." Now it's time for Sole and his agency to prove it.

DEP's lollygagging on toxins must end 05/25/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 2:34pm]
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