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Company leaves chemical trail

Honeywell International has left contaminants at several Tampa Bay sites, including the Waters Avenue location.

To the traffic whizzing by on the street, 3602 W Waters Ave. looks like any other empty commercial building. Its loading dock gates were locked down more than a decade ago when the last tenant departed. Now the only occupants are the homeless people who have stashed a shopping cart and a box of empty bottles beneath the entryway awning.

But get close enough to read the no-trespassing signs posted behind the barbed-wire fence and you will get a hint about why this prime commercial location about 3{ miles north of Raymond James Stadium remains vacant.

"Warning!" the signs say in bold letters. "Contaminated area. Avoid contact with soil or water."

This is the legacy of Honeywell International, a global business giant.

The empty factory on Waters Avenue is far from the only site that Honeywell has left in a contaminated condition. The Minnesota-based company's most recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission estimates that it faces nationwide environmental liabilities totaling $345-million.

As of last year, Honeywell already had spent $6-million trying to clean up the mess at its old Waters Avenue plant. A company official estimated it might cost Honeywell another $14-million to finish the job.

Honeywell has occupied several buildings around the Tampa Bay area and had troublesome chemical spills at some of those locations, too. One of them, at 11601 Roosevelt Blvd. in St. Petersburg, has landed Honeywell's past handling of hazardous waste in the middle of a federal investigation.

Several employees of the new tenant, Equifax Payment Services, have suffered mysterious hair loss. Federal officials investigating the strange malady have yet to figure out whether the hair loss could be caused by something Honeywell left behind or whether it could be the result of some other source of environmental contamination.

A 1991 inspection of Honeywell's Roosevelt Boulevard operation by the state Department of Environmental Protection documented that Honeywell employees handled a variety of hazardous chemicals there, including 1,1,1-trichloroethane, methylene chloride, sodium bichromate and acetone. But none of those are known to cause hair loss.

When Honeywell moved out of the Roosevelt Boulevard building in 1995, the only documented pollution the company left behind was some spilled diesel fuel, according to DEP files.

However, documents were of little help in dealing with the pollution at Honeywell's Waters Avenue plant because company officials tried to hide what was happening. One employee said he was ordered to destroy documents that would have made the company look bad, according to the employee's diary used as evidence in a suit filed against Honeywell in federal court.

"We uncovered mountains and mountains of stuff that was never reported to DEP," said Tampa lawyer Jack Fernandez, who is involved in the lawsuit against Honeywell over the contamination. "The thing that just fried me was the concealment."

A Honeywell spokesman, citing the pending litigation, declined to comment last week.

Honeywell manufactured circuit boards at the Waters Avenue plant, many under Defense Department contracts that kept the work top secret. Although it occupied the building for 20 years, Honeywell never owned the property. The company leased it from a family named Simon.

But the building was constructed to Honeywell officials' specifications, right down to the underground drains that carried away the chemical waste.

From 1965 to 1975, the company dumped cyanide, gold and other chemicals into the waters of nearby Gold Lake. Then, under government pressure, the company began pumping the waste into Tampa's sewer system. But Honeywell was spilling chemicals into the soil and the underground water supply, too.

"Throughout the history of the plant, the industrial wastewater and spent-chemical drains have experienced failures under the building slab," a Honeywell consultant wrote in one report.

From time to time, the workers would cut open the floor and patch the lines, then dig out soil where the chemicals had soaked in. The company did not report these leaks to the property owner or any regulatory agencies, according to court records.

But in 1982, plant employees discovered they repeatedly were coming up short on methyl chloride, a solvent that irritates the skin, burns the eyes and may cause cancer.

At first they wrote it off as "inventory errors" _ until they discovered a pipeline break had spilled 3,000 gallons. They alerted government officials.

The ensuing investigation uncovered more than that one spill. Over the years, a soup of chemical contaminants had fouled everything around the plant, spreading to the water wells of nearby homes, court records say.

Honeywell paid to hook up 20 families to the municipal water system.

The company hired consultants to study how bad the contamination was. But according to a diary kept by one Honeywell employee, later used as evidence in court, company officials didn't like the "tone and substance" of one report on the damage done to Gold Lake. Company officials ordered all copies destroyed rather than turned over to state and federal investigators, the court records say.

In 1986 state officials signed a deal with Honeywell for cleanup of certain specified chemicals on the property. A Honeywell employee signed as owner. Nobody bothered to tell the Simon family, who owned the property.

Family representative David Simon found out by accident when a Honeywell consultant inadvertently mentioned the continuing cleanup project in 1996.

"I could have fallen out of my chair," Simon later testified. "I was just basically floored by it. . . . This property had been contaminated for a decade and a half. I had never been notified about it."

Concerned about what had happened to his family's land, Simon hired his own consultant to check the company's deal with the state. Simon's experts began raising questions about the extent of Honeywell's cleanup.

Honeywell's cleanup agreement required the company to treat the contaminated underground water and inject it back underground. But Simon's experts discovered that Honeywell's manufacturing process had employed more hazardous chemicals than just the ones specified by the state deal. Neither the state nor Honeywell ever had checked to see whether the treated water being put back underground still contained those other chemicals.

Tests confirmed Simon's consultants were right. In 1988 Honeywell had to shut down its groundwater treatment system and start over.

"Part of the problem is just getting Honeywell to tell us what they were doing there at that site," said Chuck Hendry of ECT Associates of Tampa, the company Simon hired.

Simon filed suit in federal court, accusing Honeywell of a wide array of offenses, including fraud. After a trial last year, Simon won $250,000 in damages. The verdict now is on appeal.

In the meantime, the DEP recently worked out a new cleanup deal with Honeywell, again without including Simon in the discussion. He has now filed a legal challenge to that agreement, contending that once again the state has failed to force Honeywell to do enough to clean up the property. Fernandez, one of Simon's attorneys, accused the DEP of "dragging their feet in the worst way."

"From my perspective, Honeywell has been more than agreeable to do whatever the property owner wants," Dave Gerard of the Tampa DEP office said. "And they've been willing to do whatever the department has asked them."

Honeywell's consultants now are sampling around the property for a variety of chemicals that may have been used in manufacturing there, including the heavy metal thallium, according to Hendry, Simon's environmental consultant. Somewhat elevated levels of thallium, which can cause hair loss, also turned up under the St. Petersburg Equifax building, although officials remain uncertain whether that could be the solution to the hair-loss mystery.

DEP officials have encouraged Simon to back down from his challenge to their cleanup agreement with Honeywell. But during last year's trial, Simon testified that he intended "to keep Honeywell's feet to the fire" and "put as much pressure as I can on the DEP, including suing the DEP if it becomes necessary, and to see what whatever I can humanly do results in the prop-erty getting cleaned up so it can be properly used as it once was."

If Simon succeeds, the traffic whizzing by on Waters Avenue someday will notice one obvious difference in his property. According to his lawsuit, the total cleanup of the land "will require destruction of the factory building."

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.