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EPA finds chemicals in school soil

Some low levels of chemical contaminants were found in soils at a Pasco County elementary school across the road from the former Stauffer Chemical plant in Tarpon Springs, says a report just released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But in an attachment to the report, another federal agency says not to worry.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the U.S. Public Health Service in Atlanta said none of the contaminant levels at Gulfside Elementary School are high enough to pose a health hazard to children or teachers. The soil contaminants include relatively low levels of metals and organic contaminants and higher-than-normal concentrations of phosphorus.

The contamination is heavier, however, for the 160-acre grounds of the abandoned Stauffer phosphorus plant along the Anclote River.

Short-term exposure to contaminants in the plant complex itself won't pose an imminent threat to health, but concentrations are high enough to pose a health hazard if there is long-term exposure, the agency in Atlanta said. Only a few maintenance and security employees now work at the partially demolished facility, which is fenced off and not open to the public.

The voluminous report released by the EPA is a data compilation listing levels of organic and inorganic contaminants in soils, air, river sediments and ground and surface waters on and near the Stauffer site that may have been caused by the plant, which from 1947 to 1981 made phosphorus from phosphate ore.

In 1991, the EPA proposed to Congress that the 160-acre Stauffer site along the Anclote River be placed on the federal Superfund list in a program that targets the nation's most polluted sites for cleanup.

The new report was prepared for Stauffer by Roy F. Weston Inc., an environmental consulting and engineering firm in West Chester, Pa., with oversight of the research and report by the EPA.

The report itself does not say how dangerous the levels of contaminants are to humans, animals or the environment. That will be covered in a later report that, like the one just released, will help lay the foundation for decisions on how the site is to be cleaned up.

But because of concerns raised about students and teachers at the school immediately across Anclote Boulevard from the Stauffer plant, the EPA asked the Public Health Service to evaluate whether there are any "imminent and substantial" health hazards at the school.

In a letter attached to the Weston report, Dr. Kenneth Orloff, a senior toxicologist for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said surface soils from the Gulfside school did not contain any organic or inorganic chemicals or any radioactive materials at levels that would pose a health concern.

But for the phosphorus plant grounds, he said "surface soil samples from the Stauffer Chemical site contained elevated concentrations of arsenic and radionuclide contaminants."

"These contaminant levels do not pose an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health," he added. "However, long-term exposure to the contamination could pose a public health hazard."

Jerry Harris, former manager of the Stauffer Chemical plant and now manager of environmental operations at the abandoned plant, said he and three maintenance workers spend eight hours each weekday at the plant, and there is a security guard patrolling the fenced facility at all times, with the guards working eight-hour shifts.

Harris said he is awaiting the upcoming report on health hazards.

In Atlanta, Orloff also said groundwater from an aquifer near the surface in the area contained concentrations of arsenic, lead, cadmium, fluoride, chromium and radon above EPA's drinking water standards. But this aquifer is not used for drinking water.

The next aquifer down, the Floridan, is the source for much of the drinking water for Pinellas County, but the Weston report said the Floridan had not been affected by the chemical plant.