Column: The story behind the law on public notice of contamination

Published Sept. 26, 2016

Recently the public was made aware that contaminated wastewater leaked into the Floridan Aquifer following the opening of a massive sinkhole at the Mosaic fertilizer plant in Polk County. Many local residents are concerned that they were not notified about the leak in a timely manner. As you would expect, people are asking important questions about public notice requirements under state law and discussing room for improvement.

As this significant debate continues, consideration of the important history behind our laws is warranted.

A little over a decade ago, the people of a small, primarily African-American community in the neighborhood of Tallevast in Manatee County suffered a great injustice. As recently as 2005, we had Floridians who were not afforded the common decency, respect or right to simply be notified that the land where they owned homes and raised their families had been knowingly contaminated for years.

The American Beryllium Co. based its operations near the Tallevast neighborhood north of Sarasota and operated there from the early 1960s to 1996. The company manufactured machine parts and nuclear warheads where metals containing beryllium were milled and ground down into various components, the results of which produced a number of hazardous byproducts. The company continued to operate in Tallevast until it was purchased by Lockheed Martin in 1996; however, the new owners soon discovered several contaminants on the site and closed down the facility. In 2000, Lockheed Martin notified local and state officials that the soil and well water on the property, as well as the surrounding areas, were contaminated with toxic waste. It was nearly four years later when the residents of Tallevast were finally notified of this contamination. All the while they were still using well water for drinking and their everyday needs. The switch to the county's water system was finally made in 2004.

As a member of the Florida House at the time, working with local community leaders, I began to hear stories of family members who had experienced significant health issues, including cancer. The relevant question that kept being asked was, "Why weren't we told?"

I learned there were no state laws clarifying responsibility for public notification of an environmental incident. In 2005, I filed legislation that specifies notification procedures and quality assurance protocols to be enacted in case of such incident. The legislation unanimously passed the Legislature, and several Tallevast residents joined Gov. Jeb Bush in Tallahassee when the bill was signed in to law.

The bottom line is the historical facts do not bear out the current conjecture of some media outlets that portray the 2005 legislation as somehow creating a loophole that allows the Department of Environmental Protection to delay notification of residents. Before Tallevast, the state had a purely discretionary policy; now we have an enforceable standard for notification codified in state law.

Today, DEP indicates that their current practice builds on our existing law, with the agency notifying residents not only if contamination has moved off the source's property, but even if it is trending toward moving off property. The agency will also proactively test wells for concerned residents. This increased communication and community involvement builds on the important legacy of Tallevast, without election year political posturing created by misleading media reports.

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In the next legislative session, the Legislature can certainly consider codifying current practices into law as well as further tightening the current time frame. The suffering of the Tallevast community will not be forgotten, and we will work diligently to make certain our citizens are aware of any potential threat to their water supply.

Sen. Bill Galvano represents Florida Senate District 26 and serves as the leader of the Senate Republican Caucus. He previously served in the Florida House from 2002-10.