The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will investigate allegations that agencies failed to act when black residents complained about pollution from former garbage dumps, the sewage system and phosphate processor Coronet Industries, officials said.
The results of the preliminary inquiry, requested by the Florida chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, will determine whether the commission will conduct a full-scale investigation, said Bobby Doctor, the commission's regional director.
"We will be talking to state officials, city officials and community leaders," Doctor said. "If the allegations are true, then someone has been sleeping at the wheel."
It was unclear how long the inquiry will take.
Residents have long complained that something in their well water is sickening and even killing them, although most tests have found drinking water that meets state standards.
But the Department of Environmental Protection said Oct. 1 that Coronet was violating groundwater quality standards at the boundary of its eastern Hillsborough County plant.
The flooding of old mine sites behind Coronet brings polluted water into the predominantly black neighborhood of Lincoln Park, the SCLC said.
"There is absolutely no scientific evidence that Coronet Industries is contributing to pollution or health problems in the Lincoln Park neighborhood," the company said in a statement.