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Bill puts limits on suits against some polluters

Facing criticism from environmental groups, Florida lawmakers on Monday modified a bill that would have prevented property owners who contaminate the ground with toxic dry-cleaning chemicals from being sued.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, and state Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, initially sought to prevent adjacent property owners from taking any type of legal action.

But Jones asked the Senate Committee on Natural Resources to allow exceptions for those who sell, transfer or change the land use of their property, or who can prove economic damage occurred because of contamination.

State Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, a member of the committee, subsequently changed the "or" to an "and" on Jones' behalf, thereby requiring people affected by contamination to do both.

That means someone who has a contaminated well would not be able to seek damages unless they sold, transferred or changed the land designation of their property.

"If you were just going to continue to live there, I'm not sure you could prove there was economic loss," Jones said.

Ross is an attorney whose firm represents Publix. In 2001, the supermarket chain lost a legal fight when a nearby property owner sued because dry-cleaning fluid had migrated to his land from a Publix-owned shopping center.

Hundreds of wells around Florida are contaminated by dry-cleaning fluid, including about 150 in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood. Homeowners there had to stop drinking their well water and connect to public water lines.

Dry-cleaning chemicals can cause liver and kidney problems, and are suspected of causing cancer.

Florida's Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for cleaning up some 1,400 polluted sites around the state. Regulators estimate it will take at least 75 years and a half-billion dollars.

Under the current law, dry cleaners who are on the state's cleanup list cannot be sued to force a faster cleanup, but are liable for damages if the toxic chemicals end up in an adjacent property owner's well or on the land.

Scott Randolph, a lawyer with the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, spoke against the bill, which was unanimously approved by the Natural Resources Committee. Randolph is worried that Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to move money away from trust funds dedicated to those cleanups and into the state's general fund would further delay the restoration.

"I think the amendments take away some of the bite from the original bill, thank goodness," Randolph said. "(But) I still have concerns."

What's next?

SB 956, which restricts lawsuits over dry-cleaning chemicals that seep across property lines, was unanimously approved Monday by the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and will move to the Senate Committee on Comprehensive Planning.