TAMPA — For years in Tallahassee, the list of contaminated sites that are believed to pose a "low risk" to drinking water have numbered about 5,000. But no one is quite sure they are just low risk.
Now the state Department of Environmental Protection is adopting a new strategy aimed at completing a full assessment of each site in smaller counties over the next three to five years by hiring larger counties — including Hillsborough and Pinellas — to check them out.
Hillsborough will administer site assessment and cleanup in Manatee. Pinellas will do the same in Pasco and is expected also to undertake Hernando, Citrus, and Sumter counties.
Such properties, which made it on the list using mapping data and landowners' self-reporting, can contain surprises, said Hooshang Boostani, director of Hillsborough waste management.
"Someone calls and says they've got just a few gallons of fuel that are missing," Boostani said. "Then you might get to the assessment phase and find tons and tons of free product in the ground."
Hillsborough's current $850,000 program is getting an additional $200,000 from the state to fund the change. It is unclear how much Pinellas will add to its current $385,000 program.
"The state program should be further along," Boostani said. "This is one way to get it where they think it should be."
Diane Pickett, director of DEP's Petroleum Restoration Program, said smaller counties never had enough contamination sites to make a locally administered program feasible. But she said having larger counties expand their programs to include some of their neighbors will make the cleanup operation more efficient.
"Think about it," Pickett said. "Tallahassee was managing a site down in Collier County. It just didn't make sense."
Local officials say they are in a better position to monitor contamination sites than officials in Tallahassee.
"We're local and maybe a little more motivated and concerned about the local environment," said Joseph Sowers, an environmental supervisor for Pinellas. "Not that the state isn't concerned. But proximity does create efficiencies."
The 25-year-old cleanup program prioritizes the cleanup of sites based on the threat to surface water or groundwater. The government pays all or part of the cost. In recent years, the DEP has moved to expand the assessment of low-risk sites in an effort to both determine the true environmental risk and to remove from state oversight sites that pose no danger.
GLE Associates Inc., an environmental consultation firm in Tampa, noted in a summary of the DEP program prepared for state lawmakers, "The fact that a site has been designated a low priority score does not mean that the site is not highly contaminated."
Counties typically are currently working on the cleanup of high-risk sites. But a list of sites deemed low-risk have not yet been fully assessed, officials said.
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Sites are most often the location of old filling stations.
Pickett said having program administrators at the local level makes it easier for property owners to get answers more quickly. And county officials will have a better working knowledge of local geology, aiding them in site assessment, she said.
Boostani described the DEP's changes to the program to the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission last month, saying the DEP told county officials the program was "going through a huge change.
"We need to speed up the cleanup process," he told the EPC. "There are 5,000 sites that are un-assessed. They have not been looked at. They have been sitting there."
The program is funded with a tax on fuel imported into Florida, costs that are eventually passed on to drivers. Last year, the program's budget was about $125 million, DEP said.
Pinellas has up to 450 sites on the list of low-risk sites, and Hillsborough has up to 500. Smaller counties have just a fraction of those totals.
Contact William R. Levesque at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.