The first caller said a large, black cloud was covering the area. That was in December, and since then, the complaints have mounted about soot, odor and smoke from Florida Power Corp.'s Anclote plant.
"Acid is getting on her boat and patio furniture."
"Soot and acid mist . . . pitted the paint on his vehicles, destroyed a canvas cover, burned holes on tree leaves and left an oily sheen on his fish pond, killing his fish."
"He noticed a yellow brown sky around the Anclote plant."
So say the residents who have filed complaints over the past seven months with the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The plant is breaking no rules, state regulators say, but at the least, the fallout may constitute a public nuisance.
"I'm not going to back off this one," said Bob Soich, a DEP engineer who has been tracking the complaints. A meeting is scheduled this week to discuss enforcement actions, which could lead to fines.
A spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg-based utility said the company is responsive to residents' concerns, and has spent up to $100,000 this year studying solutions.
"We are definitely aware of the situation, and any time it happens is unfortunate," spokeswoman Karen Raihill said. "We want to be good neighbors."
Ironically, complaints about fallout from the plant's one smokestack have increased since stricter provisions of the federal Clean Air Act took effect in January. The new rules require plant operators to blow soot and ash out of the stack more frequently, Raihill said.
The belching is nothing new to the residents who live near the plant along the Gulf of Mexico near the Pinellas-Pasco county line. For years, Florida Power has washed its vehicles and boats to remove spots of oil and rusty ash left by the fallout. Last year, the company spent $8,000 on such cleanups, Raihill said.
The most recent complaints, however, show people are concerned about more than damage to their property. They are beginning to wonder about their health.
One couple, who ripped up a garden dotted with black specks, has hired a lawyer. Other residents say they are satisfied with how the company is handling their complaints.
Florida Power is cooperating, said Soich, the lead state investigator. But washing cars isn't an acceptable solution, he said.
"That's not a way to handle the problem."
Thirteen years ago, Mike Houllis noticed rust spots on the deck of his 46-foot Bertram boat, ElettraHoullis, who likes to keep his boat shiny white, wondered what was causing the spots.
He and other boat owners at the Port Tarpon Marina compared notes. The same spots were appearing on other boats.
"It usually happened at night," said Houllis, a 48-year-old Tarpon Springs resident and general manager of the marina.
Houllis noticed dark clouds blowing out of the power plant's stack, and he wondered whether the spots were coming from the clouds. To investigate, he placed a piece of fiberglass on the roadside beside the plant.
For three weeks, Houllis checked his boat and the piece of fiberglass. As soon as he noticed the spots on his boat, he drove to the plant. Similar spots were on the fiberglass.
Houllis confronted Florida Power with his evidence. After some haggling, the company agreed to clean his boat.
"They know they're doing it," Houllis said. "That's why they're paying to clean it." He gets Elettra cleaned by Florida Power about 12 times a year.
The utility hired Jan Manchester of New Port Richey, owner of Gulf Coast Yacht Service, to clean the boats.
"On most boats, the spots come out easy," said Manchester, 39. "But sometimes it takes two cleanings to get it off."
Some boat owners use Sno Bol, a toilet bowl cleaner, on the spots, which do not come off with regular soap and water.
"All I know is that it ain't something you can wipe off," Houllis said. "If it takes Sno Bol to get it out of the boats, doesn't it dawn on anyone's brains that some of us are breathing it in?"
Neighbors of the plant have found the spots on their cars and some patio furniture.
The spots resemble yellow pollen stains, said Roger Larrison, 47, who lives about 400 feet from the plant.
"But the pollen count went down and the spots didn't," he said.
Larrison has lived there four years but he did not notice the spots until he bought a 1994 white Geo Tracker. He parked his Tracker in the garage, evicting his Ford F-150 XL truck, also white, to the driveway.
Besides the mystery pollen, Larrison also has noticed black oily speckles on his cars. The speckles only come off when he waxes his car.
"I shouldn't have to wax my vehicle every time I want it clean," Larrison said.
Last weekend, Larrison spent 12 hours cleaning the Tracker, he said. He had to use a rubbing compound to get the spots off.
"I was a little frustrated, maybe even borderline upset," he said. "Sometimes you wonder if it is dangerous to your health."
Florida Power hired Deep Shine Polishing, a New Port Richey car cleaning company, to wash cars in the area. Deep Shine has washed cars by the dozen at Gulfside Elementary School, about a mile from the plant.
Gulfside's principal, Deborah Minshew, said she contacted George Renninger, environmental specialist of Pasco Schools, to determine whether the fallout was harmful. Renninger said it's safe.
"I don't see anything unusual about it at all," he said.
A garden mowed
Ray Milton's name appears most frequently in the state's investigative file on the Anclote plant. He and his wife, Toni, say they have suffered so much property damage that about two months ago they hired an attorney, who is in discussions with Florida Power.
The soot has killed their fish, spoiled the harvest from their garden and is giving Mrs. Milton migraine headaches, they say.
"There's not one square inch of our property that's not getting peppered with this stuff," said Ray Milton, 42.
Florida Power has washed their vehicles, but the Miltons, who live less than a mile from the plant, are more concerned about the health effects of the fallout.
Mrs. Milton, 47, is a vegetarian. "We were told to eat out of the garden, but there's no way," she said.
"I wouldn't eat the vegetables that this stuff fell on," Soich said.
The Miltons mowed down the garden two weeks ago.
Despite such concerns, the DEP cannot say precisely what is in the fallout.
It consists of oily soot and uncombusted ash, which has the tendency to become acidic when mixed with morning dew or rain, Soich said. These particles are too heavy to be breathed in, he said.
The soot and ash are normal byproducts of oil-fired plants, said Raihill. "We are abiding by the environmental regulations that apply to the plant and they take into effect public health and safety."
Because the plant hasn't violated any regulations, the state is planning to charge it under a nuisance ordinance, said Soich.
But the DEP acknowledges that's a challenge, because regulations don't explicitly define "nuisance."
Winds of change
Around power plants, soot is common, but so many complaints are not.
Spending $8,000 to wash cars is "a pretty extraordinary effort," said Kathy Scott, a spokeswoman for Miami-based Florida Power & Light Co., which serves 35 counties.
Complaints from fallout are infrequent, she said, but she cited one instance several years ago when neighbors of the utility's plant near downtown Miami were notified that soot was a possibility because maintenance was being performed on a stack.
"We have had upsets here, but it's not a very frequent occurrence," said Clyde Montgomery, a spokesman for the Jacksonville Electric Authority, which operates four plants in that area.
Power plants, including Anclote, often were built on large, isolated pieces of property, the utility officials say. Fallout has become more noticeable as people moved nearby.
The utilities employ a host of devices to reduce pollution. Montgomery said the Jacksonville authority, for instance, has spent $400-million on air and water quality control equipment on its most up-to-date plant, the St. Johns River Power Park.
Raihill, the spokeswoman for Florida Power, said the industry has to weigh those kinds of costs against its obligation to provide electricity at a reasonable rate.
"We will address this issue with the best interests of all our customers in mind," she said.
In explaining why fallout from Anclote may have increased, Florida Power officials told the DEP that the plant has frequent shutdowns and startups because it is not always run at full power. By law, utilities have to provide the cheapest power available, and instead of running Anclote at full steam, sometimes the company buys electricity generated more cheaply elsewhere.
The officials also said they are blowing soot from the smokestack more often since January, when a revision to the Clean Air Act took effect.
Plant operators used to wait for winds blowing west toward the gulf before they blew the soot. Given the stricter law, they can't wait, and often blow the stack on a daily basis, said Raihill.
"It has limited our flexibility," she said. "We cannot always wait for the wind direction to change."
So more fallout is hitting land.
For the DEP's Soich, the Anclote case has become something of a cause.
"The bottom line for me is I want a solution," he said. "I want the people out there to stop having problems."
So does Toni Milton, the vegetarian with no vegetables. When Florida Power officials asked her what they could do to make her happy, she had one answer: "Make me feel safe."