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Coronet says plant closing just business

The news spread quickly Friday, bringing joy to some folks, heartache to others.

At a swank Marriott hotel in Tampa, a newly appointed chief executive wearing a crisp suit announced that Coronet Industries will close its controversial phosphate plant March 31.

After nearly a century as a fixture in Plant City, Coronet's gritty smoke stacks finally will shut down. About 90 employees will be out of jobs.

Friday's announcement came after months of local, state and federal inspections that began when residents alleged that the company had polluted air and groundwater in the area and caused scores of illnesses.

The company also is facing a pollution lawsuit filed on behalf of hundreds of residents by a nationally known environmental law firm.

Coronet's new chief executive officer, hired this week, insisted that a lack of profitability, not environmental concerns or impending legal battles, caused the closing.

"For Coronet Industries, it's the right business decision," new CEO David Denner said.

Back in Plant City, it was much more personal.

Their bosses had told them at a 7 a.m. meeting.

And as employees on the 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift went home in the Friday afternoon drizzle, many were still mulling the bad news.

"We were pretty sure this was coming," said Wayne Mallard, a 59-year-old miller who has put in 13 years at Coronet. "With the economy being the way it is, and the lawsuits about the pollution, there's not a lot of shock around here."

Mallard said he earned about $35,000 a year working 40 hours a week. A good job, he said, gone now because Coronet was getting blamed for health problems no one could prove it caused.

"This is another step down for this area," Mallard said from the front seat of his Ford F-150 pickup.

For other workers, the news came as more of a surprise. Vincent Wright, a 23-year-old Plant City native, started at Coronet four months ago, loading 50-pound bags of animal feed onto trucks for $8 an hour.

"It was a good job," Wright said. "I'm disappointed. But most people here have been here 15 years or more. I feel bad for them. What are they going to do?"

Coronet has been no stranger to trouble. Since 1998, the company has faced dozens of air-quality violations from the county's Environmental Protection Commission. And since 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has fined Coronet more than $80,000 for water violations.

As stories spread about health problems in nearby neighborhoods, most of them cancer-related, a palpable fear began to course through the community. Allegations from former employees in July that company officials had ordered them to dump toxic waste in the area only fueled the anxiety.

Last summer, numerous government agencies began testing wells near the plant. Of 143 tested by the end of 2003, 32 exceeded what officials consider safe drinking standards, said Cindy Morris, environmental administrator for the Hillsborough County Health Department.

The most commonly found pollutants were arsenic and boron, and as a precaution,about 30 households were put on bottled drinking water.

But even after the heated town meetings, the allegations and the media blitz, only mystery and innuendo remained. So far, no proof has tied pollution at Coronet directly to people's sicknesses.

Cancer rates in zip codes closest to the plant are comparable to the state average. Pollution monitors show Plant City has better air than Tampa. And while investigators have found higher-than-normal amounts of pollution in some drinking wells, they say the levels aren't high enough to make people sick any time soon. The presence of old landfills nearby further complicates the situation.

Denner, the CEO, insisted Friday that simple economics caused the closing. He said the cost of natural gas, electricity and raw materials such as phosphate rock have increased, while demand for the company's chicken feed additive has decreased.

"We simply don't see a business scenario that returns Coronet to profitability at any time in the near future," Denner said.

True or not, many in Plant City aren't buying that argument. They say the company is cutting and running. Even so, many are glad to see it go.

Elizabeth Edwards has lived on Jim Johnson Road for 23 years, often waking to an inch-thick white film of powder blanketing her car. She has buried two husbands who died of lung cancer and points to neighbors who also succumbed to the disease.

She blames Coronet for all the grief.

"I don't have any proof, but when there's so much (sickness), it makes you wonder," said Edwards, 62. "I'm not surprised they're leaving. I don't think they want to accept responsibility for what they've done."

Edwards doesn't expect to see much money from the lawsuit she and her neighbors filed against Coronet last year. By the time the case is decided, she said, the place will likely be a ghost town.

"I don't even list my property," she said. "No one wants to live here. Everyone is trying to move out."

At Snellgrove's Restaurant, which has been serving catfish, baked ham and Delmonico steak in Plant City's downtown for 44 years, the plight of Coronet has been the main topic of conversation for months, said its manager, Yvette McEver.

"Everybody in this town knows at least one person involved in this lawsuit," she said. "It's touched everyone in some way. And while Coronet took care of Plant City for a long time, I think a lot of people think it should have let people know about this pollution instead of having it all come out like it has."

She thought about it, then said, "Maybe if they can clean up, things will be better."

While Friday was a day for layoffs, it also was a day of promises.

Denner vowed that employees will be offered severance pay, extended health insurance benefits and help finding other work.

He also said that in a Thursday meeting in Tallahassee, he promised state and federal officials that Coronet would take responsibility for any environmental problems and pay to make sure the site is closed properly.

"I want the residents of Plant City and Hillsborough County to have confidence that we will live up to our responsibility to them as a neighbor," Denner said. "We will do the right thing _ for our employees, for our neighbors and for the state of Florida."

Some people have doubts. They fear the company, owned by Mitsui & Co. Ltd. of Tokyo and Onoda Chemical Industry Co., plans to pack up and leave its waste behind for taxpayers to clean up.

"It's imperative that the public not pay a high price in this closure. Our recent history is not good," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, referring to the Piney Point phosphate plant, which went bankrupt in 2001 and left the state to clean up 1-billion gallons of highly acidic wastewater.

"I tend to be a skeptic," Platt said. "But I hope I'm wrong."

For now, environmental regulators are giving Coronet the benefit of the doubt.

"We expect that the company will commit the necessary resources to do what needs to be done," said Atlanta-based EPA spokesman Carl Terry. Coronet also faces a long road ahead in the courtroom. The law firm of Masry & Vititoe, of Erin Brockovich fame, said Friday it intends to continue its planned personal injury lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of residents.

On Friday, Denner wasn't talking lawsuits. Instead, he spoke of bringing harmony to Plant City, making certain "we live up to our responsibility to our employees, to our neighbors and to the state of Florida."

_ Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

THE STORY SO FAR: Coronet Industries, a phosphate plant near Plant City that makes additives for animal feed, has a lengthy record of pollution violations. In recent months it has come under scrutiny from federal and state regulators over possible contamination of surrounding water supplies.

WHAT'S NEW: The company introduced a new chief executive officer Friday, who announced that the plant will shut down at the end of March.

WHAT'S NEXT: Regulators will continue to analyze pollution tests taken at and near the plant, and Coronet has said it will not abandon the site. Meanwhile, the company has been sued by neighbors who say that pollution has caused an array of serious health problems.

What's in the well water?

Some residential wells near Coronet have tested for higher-than-normal levels of certain substances. Among them:

Boron: a substance that in high doses can cause stomach ailments.

Arsenic: a cancer-causing metal found in phosphate and pesticides.

Radionuclides: radioactive particles that can cause cancer.

Drinking water standards are set at levels that experts say will increase the risk of cancer by 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1-million, assuming that someone drinks two liters of that water every day for 70 years.

Officials have said the pollution levels found in the wells near Coronet don't exceed the standards enough to significantly increase the risk.

Timeline

1908: Coronet's Plant City facility opens.

1993: Mitsui & Co. of Tokyo and Onoda Chemical Industry Co. become the latest owners of Coronet, following Smith Douglass Co., Borden Co., Amax Chemical Co. and a division of Florida Crushed Stone, Consolidated Minerals.

1998: Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County finds about 28 violations dealing with Coronet's air quality.

1999-2001: EPC gives Coronet until 2005 to fix continuing air pollution problems or risk being shut down.

2001: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fines Coronet $60,000 for violating the federal Clean Water Act. Federal officials send a letter to state environmental regulators about potential health risks posed by Coronet.

2002: EPA fines Coronet $24,750 for violating the Clean Air Act. Investigation begins into possible health risks around the facility.

August 2003: The EPA begins testing wells near the Coronet plant.

Sept. 16, 2003: Erin Brockovich's law firm Masry & Vititoe prepares a lawsuit on behalf of nearby residents who fear their health is being harmed by Coronet.

Oct. 1, 2003: Three lawyers file suit in Hillsborough Circuit Court on behalf of five residents seeking compensation for property damage and personal injury.

Jan. 30: Coronet announces it will close the plant March 31.

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