Cleaning up toxic mess must be priority — now

Houses on A Street in south Brooksville border the county Department of Public Works site. The chemical crisis in that neighborhood has been on the county’s radar for 17 years.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Houses on A Street in south Brooksville border the county Department of Public Works site. The chemical crisis in that neighborhood has been on the county’s radar for 17 years.

Seventeen years.

That's long enough to watch a child be born and graduated from high school.

It's enough time to have voted for president of the United States four — almost five — times.

Seventeen years ago, Richard Williamson (4-15) was coaching the Bucs, the only devil rays we knew were still in the water and lots of folks were still wondering if that Internet thingy was really going to catch on.

And 17 years also happens to be how long Hernando County government officials have known, or at least suspected, they were poisoning the ground at their Department of Public Works site in the Mitchell Heights neighborhood of south Brooksville.

All that time has passed and there still is no one who can stand up, look the people of that area in the eyes and assure them that they never were, and are not today, in any danger from the hazardous chemicals that were dumped on the soil near their homes.

The reality of this neglect is more than shameful; it is morally unconscionable. It is an act of tacit discrimination against people who are poor, whose skin pigment happens to be darker than most, and who have been subjected to decades of institutional racism, dating back at least to 1948. That's when the white politicians decided to put Brooksville's sewage treatment plant in the neighborhood where they had legally segregated black residents, and a few years later placed the DPW compound in the same neighborhood.

From then until 2003, county workers (also putting themselves at great risk) dumped untold amounts of toxic chemicals. The result was varying amounts of arsenic, toluene, benzene, lead paint, pesticides and petroleum products that could still be detected a decade later. The residual runoff to neighbors' yards has yet to be determined, even though the county, as ordered by the state Department of Environmental Protection, has spent more than $1-million to remove soil and test and retest the ground. Still, there is no final word on the risk to human health. There is merely an acknowledgement that the ground was contaminated to an unknown degree.

How comforting that must be for those residents who watch their children play in the dirt, or who might contemplate planting a vegetable garden.

Were it not for the Times shining a bright light on this problem from time to time, the public might not even be aware of the seriousness of this issue. But even that added awareness has not persuaded the public servants and politicians to wrap up their analysis.

Last week, County Administrator David Hamilton held a town hall-type meeting in south Brooksville. It was a forum for residents there to discuss whatever was on their minds. To the surprise of no one, the 5-acre DPW site was one of the topics.

At that meeting, Hamilton, as he did in an earlier meeting with the Times editorial staff, expressed his desire to expedite this process. I believe he is sincere when he says he will make it a priority for his employees, and I wish him luck in lighting a fire under the state DEP, which bears its share of the blame for not rectifying this issue years ago.

But I am jaded by history. Hamilton is now the fourth county administrator who has told me he intends to remedy this situation. "We're on it," has been the collective assurance. Looking back, my collective assessment of those guarantees is, "Your staff is otherwise occupied."

Face it: If even the possibility of government-induced, hazardous pollution existed in the well-heeled subdivisions of Dogwood Estates, or Seven Hills, or Silverthorn, or River Country, the politicians and bureaucrats would have resolved it years ago.

But as Hamilton sorts it out, he should be careful about the version of events he hears from his staff, in particular DPW director and county engineer Charles Mixson, whose tenure and benign culpability on this problem dates back — you guessed it — 17 years. Granted, Mixson inherited the problem, but he also has been in the best position of anyone to correct it, or at least make sure the issue stayed on the front burner.

Good luck, Mr. Hamilton. Give these folks some peace of mind, and the response and respect they deserve from their government. I really would prefer not to repeat this column for your successor in a few years.

Jeff Webb can be reached at webb@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6123.

Cleaning up toxic mess must be priority — now 06/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 4:32pm]

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