EPA Plans for Florida Dioxin Site Criticized

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will offer to relocate 101 families from a dioxin-contaminated neighborhood in Pensacola.

    But for now, more than 250 other families in a predominantly black community sandwiched between two Superfund sites are getting no promises of government help.

    The EPA plan, to be presented at a public hearing next week, would cost the agency an estimated $ 8-million. It would involve the largest permanent evacuation from a hazardous waste site in Florida, and the largest dioxin-related relocation since Times Beach, Mo., was turned into a ghost town in 1983.

    Pensacola has been chosen as the pilot site for an EPA program that aims to improve relocation decisions in communities threatened by toxic wastes. It also was supposed to be a model of President Clinton's commitment to environmental justice.
    But the latest EPA plan was condemned as inadequate by the leader of a community group pleading for a federal demolition of the entire neighborhood.

    And it brought fresh accusations of racial injustice from Joel Hirschhorn, a technical expert hired to represent the neighborhood's interests.

    In written comments to EPA, Hirschhorn alleged the agency chose to ignore "African-Americans at the lowest end of the economic spectrum" in the neighborhood, "failed its statutory responsibility to protect public health and failed to implement President Clinton's Executive Order on environmental justice."

    In an interview, Hirschhorn also said EPA officials had overruled the recommendations of their new site manager in Pensacola - who is black, and who had favored relocating the entire neighborhood.

    Site manager Ken Lucas "did a very nice piece of analysis," Hirschhorn said, and "people in senior management obviously did not want to follow his recommendations."

    Hirschhorn provided the Times with a copy of an unsigned EPA draft document that recommends moving the entire neighborhood, demolishing its homes and permanently restricting the area to industrial or commercial use.

    Jim Kutzman, EPA's deputy director of waste management in Atlanta, said he had not personally seen this document and was not aware that Lucas had prepared such a report.

    In any case, he said Lucas concurred with the plan recommended by a team of agency officials.

    Lucas could not be reached for comment Friday.

    Dioxins are considered to be among the most dangerous compounds ever created.

    They arise as unintentional byproducts of industrial processes. The worst are so carcinogenic to some laboratory animals that the lethal dose is measured in parts per trillion. So is the EPA standard for human exposure.

    In Pensacola, dioxins contaminate the abandoned land of Escambia Treating Co., an industry that soaked timbers with a potent preservative.

    Some of its wastes have seeped into the soils of the residences nearby.

    About 260,000 cubic yards of dioxin-tainted dirt have been amassed in a tarpaulin-covered hill on the Escambia site.

    In doing so, EPA aroused fear and suspicion among the neighbors, who blamed the excavation work for an outbreak of respiratory ailments and skin rashes.

    Many have erected small white crosses in front of homes where people died of cancer. Some say they fear opening their windows now.

    EPA officials have maintained that the excavation did no harm and that health risks to people living near the Escambia site and a second Superfund site, abandoned by an agricultural chemical maker, are not severe.

    But in April, the agency did offer to move 66 of the families closest to the Escambia site before proceeding with cleanup work.

    The new plan adds 35 homes north of the Escambia site to EPA's relocation offer.

    Excluded, for now, are all homes south of the site. The revised plan suggests, however, that inadequate information is the reason. Additional soil samples will be collected "in the immediate future," it says, to evaluate whether those families should be moved.

    Also excluded was Escambia Arms, a large subsidized apartment complex across the street from houses EPA plans to demolish.

    Relocating its tenants "is not justified at this time" based on test results, the agency plan says, but it promises to study their health risks further.

    A neighborhood group called Citizens Against Toxic Exposure will meet to discuss EPA's new recommendations before next week's public hearing.

    Margaret Williams, the group's president, called the latest plan an improvement, but a small one.

    "We were very disappointed. I thought sure they were going to relocate all the members of the community," she said.

    For EPA, an agency that rarely moves entire neighborhoods away from hazardous waste sites, a generous decision in Pensacola could raise the risk of similar demands from other communities.

    Even the partial relocation in its new plan is coupled with a pre-emptive warning that decisions "made at the Escambia pilot in no way obligate the agency to make similar decisions at other sites, or affect any past decisions made at any other sites."

    In Atlanta, Kutzman said the relocation of 101 families may begin in the next six to nine months. Each will be offered a fair price, disregarding the negative value of neighborhood Superfund sites, plus a relocation allowance, he said.

    For other residents, the new plan "doesn't mean we're saying no," he said. "It just means we don't have enough information at this time."

    One thing the residents did get from EPA was a change of site managers.

    Citizens Against Toxic Exposure had complained that the previous site manager, Mark Fite, ignored evidence of the health risks they endure.

    In a May 6 letter to regional administrator John Hankinson, the group accused him of "longstanding biases" against them and demanded a replacement.

    Kutzman called Lucas' recent appointment "just the evolution of the project" in Pensacola.

    "Mark had other projects. It wasn't a replacement where he was taken off the project," he said. "Rather, Ken took it over."

    Despite the threat, neighborhood children play on the tarp-covered hill of dioxin-tainted dirt on the Escambia site.
Copyright 1996 Times Publishing Company
St. Petersburg Times
August 17, 1996, Saturday, 0 South Pinellas Edition
LOAD-DATE: August 19, 1996