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Fighting a good fight out of the limelight

Days like these, you wonder if it could get any worse in Florida.

We're too cheap to build schools or hire social workers, too cheap to even keep the electric chair from breaking down.

And so many of the people leading us can't see past their next set of poll results.

Nickel wisdom has it that Florida is cheap and short-sighted, even mean, because the politicians reading their poll results want it cheap and short-sighted and even mean, and they want it that way because they want the old people's vote, and the old people don't care what'll be left when they're gone.

I don't entirely buy it. The theory doesn't explain Gloria Rains.

Rains, a 69-year-old widow and grandmother, lives in the shadow of the Sunshine Skyway, on a spit of land in Palmetto with a lone snowy egret constantly cruising her yard, even her roof.

She is chairman of one of Florida's leading environmental groups, ManaSota-88, and has tried to do for the land what Marjory Stoneman Douglas has done for the Everglades.

Rains has tried. For years. She's spoken before this panel, that committee, somebody else's hearing, asking the state to clean up as much as 166,000 possibly radioactive acres in Central Florida _ all of it land mined for phosphate.

But like school buildings and case workers, we somehow don't bother to respond. It's not a problem, you hear. It's too expensive, you hear. In a state where English is the official language, we've used every possible variation of manana as an excuse.

Still, radon gas is in the air.

Radioactive stacks of phospho-gypsum, another product of mining, tower over the flatness of Hillsborough and Polk counties.

Acres and acres of homes in Polk have been built on old phosphate mines that were landscaped with dirt removed during the phosphate process. That land also is radioactive.

There's radioactive slag in the paving material used on some streets on the Pinellas-Pasco line, near Tarpon Springs.

The radioactivity was discovered as the EPA prepares to clean up nearby Stauffer Chemical, which processed phosphate for 30 years.

Now the cancer threat from these sources of radiation _ a threat that for lung cancer may be one-third higher in phosphate areas than elsewhere _ is being talked about again.

This is no comfort for the people with the radioactive streets, but it's perverse good news from Rains' perspective. The radioactive streets represent another chance to spread the word about the damage done by phosphate mining.

"About every 10 years, it comes up," she said from her dining room overlooking a canal leading into Terra Ceia Bay. Stacks of scientific papers were on her table, and other stacks were in her bedroom. Still more information was piled up in a corner of her office, data she wanted that had been spewed out of a fax machine.

And every time the subject of phosphate and radioactivity arises, Gloria Rains speaks up, spells out in weighty scientific language what she believes.

Every time, officials nod. And the phosphate companies win again.

Not even reporters talk of phosphate much, in the papers and on the air, although we should. In Kentucky, they report on coal, don't they? In Texas, they report on oil.

So why does the phosphate industry get a break?

But phosphate pollution leaves no burning river, makes no sky black with smoke. There's not even an empty lake bed to photograph. If you can't see the problem, how can it possibly be news?

If Gloria Rains is discouraged, she hid it.

"As bad as I think our system is, and it's the worst I've ever seen it," she said, wonderfully gravel-voiced, "I still think you can make a difference."