Pensacola Neighborhood Feels Afraid to Breathe

    Four small white crosses stand in the front yard of Margaret Williams, childhood home.
    Two are for her parents, who died of cancer there. one is for her second son, who died of a respiratory disease at age 3 months. One is for her third son, who was stillborn.

    For decades, she and her neighbors lived beside some of Pensacola's dirtiest industries, "and we never associated cancer deaths with these plants," she says. "But as you look back . . ."

    She pauses. "We took those odors. There were times you could hardly stay there. The smells of ammonia. The sulfur smells." And if the wind blew toward your home, "the windows looked like they had been painted."

    Once, the little neighborhood east of Palafox Street was the place in Pensacola where a black family could buy a house.

    Today it is a neighborhood where people fear the air they breathe and the ground where their gardens once grew. Small white crosses are a common sight in their yards. For Sale signs are non-existent.

    Just beyond their homes, over the metal fence installed behind their back yards, is the abandoned land of a wood-treating industry.

    Dominating the site is an L-shaped hill covered by a plastic mat. The hill holds 255,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with dioxins, perhaps the most dangerous compounds ever made.

    To the east, just across the railroad tracks, is a second Superfund site abandoned by a manufacturer of sulfuric acid and agricultural chemicals.

    There are 358 houses and apartments on the little streets beside these sites. Retired couples and parents of young children who live here now cling to the same hope. They want the federal government to bulldoze their neighborhood and relocate everyone who lives here.

    They may get their wish.

    In Pensacola, the Environmental Protection Agency is considering the largest evacuation from a dioxin waste site since it emptied the Missouri town of Times Beach in 1983.

    It is considering the third-largest permanent relocation ever from a hazardous waste site, after Times Beach and the infamous Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

    EPA also plans - for the first time in 16 years of Superfund projects - to look beyond calculations of health risks as it decides who should be moved at government expense.

    In Pensacola, social and economic factors will be considered: the concentration of polluting industries in minority communities, the stress of living between two Superfund sites, the futility of selling a home in a neighborhood hemmed with chemical wastes.

    What happens in Pensacola could set the stage for EPA decisions in dozens of other communities clamoring to escape hazardous waste sites.

    "This is a pilot program, and I think a fairly courageous one on the part of EPA," says John Hankinson, its Southeast regional administrator."  This is new ground for all of us."  Distrust of EPA Hankinson's promise of environmental justice is being extended to a community that has not had a happy history with the EPA.

    In Pensacola, the agency faces a neighborhood convinced that the EPA itself exposed hundreds of families to deadly chemicals, and suspicious that racism played a role in the way they were treated.

    Their distrust dates to 1991, when the EPA built the dioxin-contaminated hill in their neighborhood.

    In an "emergency removal,, effort, EPA dug up acres of soil whose wastes were spreading into groundwater. The removal didn't take the dioxin away. While children played nearby, men shielded in moon suits spent a year excavating and piling up truckloads of dirt on site.

    Five years after EPA's arrival, the hill remains beside two open pits.

    The neighbors call it Mount Dioxin. They recall how its excavation unleashed something that burned their eyes and noses. They blame it for the respiratory diseases and skin rashes their children suffer. They suspect its wastes when a neighbor dies of cancer, and they know it traps them in houses nobody would buy.

    "They'll wait and see how many of us are going to die. Then they won't have to pay us," says Ivey Floyd, a discouraged homeowner.

    She and her husband, Jim, are sitting in the living room of the house they bought 37 years ago. There are three No Smoking signs in the room. The Floyds have respiratory illnesses that require weekly visits to doctors. "I don't know who coughs worse at night, me or him," Ivey says.

    They have a yard where fruit and pecan trees "just started dying, limb by limb," she says.

    They suspect their skin color affected the federal response to their plight.

    "We got the wrong paint job is all I can say," Ivey says. "They say race ain't got nothing to do with it, but I never believed it. I never believed it."

    Mark Fite, EPA's project manager in Pensacola, says he knows some Pensacola residents have "raised that specter" of racism - "and that could not be farther from the truth. We've been extra sensitive and much more accommodating in this case than we normally are."

    Fite calls the public health risks at this site fairly low. "We would not ordinarily relocate people in this situation. But this site is a pilot site," he says.

    Homeowners are not the only people asking to be moved away from this site.

    Last year, the EPA received a letter from Precision Machining Inc., a metal fabricating business bordering the site. Company workers were reporting "an inordinate amount of sickness and respiratory problems," the letter said.  Would the EPA consider relocating the manufacturing plant?

    A year passed without a reply. When residents learned of the request, they saw the delay as proof that the EPA was trying to conceal evidence of health hazards. Fite said the delay was just an oversight.

    The EPA has not offered to relocate Precision Machining. It has proposed to relocate 66 of the households closest to the dioxin site and to explore "housing alternatives" for others.

    That plan was dismissed angrily by the Citizens Against Toxic Exposure, a neighborhood group organized during the excavation that wants the EPA to relocate every family in the area.

    In a letter to the EPA's regional headquarters in Atlanta, the group also asked Hankinson to replace Fite as the project manager.

    Poisoned land

    Dioxins have no useful purpose. They are byproducts of other processes and are considered dangerous in microscopic amounts. Dioxin can affect reproductive systems of some laboratory animals in doses measured in parts per trillion. Times Beach was turned into a ghost town after 2 parts per billion of dioxin was detected in its soil.

    Similar concentrations have been detected in the soil in Pensacola.

    Dioxin came to Pensacola in bags of pentachlorophenol, a preservative used by Escambia Treating Co.

    Escambia treated wood piles and pilings for 40 years in Pensacola. It shut down in 1982, soon after Congress began enacting hazardous waste disposal laws. Nine years later the land was abandoned in a bankruptcy proceeding.

    The EPA inherited a site contaminated with dioxins, creosote, solvents, arsenic and a banned pesticide called dieldrin.

    People who worked for Escambia Treating recall an industry that handled its chemicals casually.

    Frank Pickett, a 19-year employee who lives just north of the old plant site, remembers how chemicals "dripped off the poles right back down into the ground," where heavy rains left mud slicks for days.

    Escambia Treating also had tanks with "gaskets that used to blow out," he said, and "there'd be hundreds of gallons running out of that cylinder before you could catch it."

    The worst job was maintaining the tanks where pentachlorophenol was used. Men who climbed inside them sometimes passed out. Others would come out with blood dripping from their noses.

    Health problems

    The EPA began stockpiling Escambials contaminated soil in October 1991, eight months after the 26-acre site was abandoned. Air emissions were monitored, and sampling results "show no releases above acceptable levels," Fite says.

    Yet he too has felt "that same choking feeling, kind of hard to breathe, burning the throat," when visiting the area. "There may be other problems in the neighborhood," he suggests.

    The families who bought homes near the Escambia plant are now surrounded by industrial sites. Their neighbors include a barrel reconditioning company, auto paint shops, a railroad yard and the Superfund site of Agrico Chemical Co., where bulldozers and bucket loaders are entombing soil laced with arsenic and lead.

    Many residents, however, say their ailments coincided with the EPA's excavation at the Escambia site, and they describe symptoms similar to those once experienced by plant employees.

    At 26 1/2 Pearl St., Lisa Wiggins is sitting on a worn living room couch, folding clothes, when the phone rings.

    "Hey son, how ya doing?

    "That's good. . . . Hey, you haven't had any nosebleeds lately, have you? You still got your pills?"

    Marcus, her 12-year-old, stays with an uncle these days. At home he had nosebleeds several times a week, "and I'm not talking about trickling blood, I'm talking about pouring," she says. "Where you have to take a towel and catch it, and you have to hold his head for hours."

    Wiggins has spent 24 of her 28 years in this neighborhood. Now she is afraid to let her sons grow up here. Too many kids have headaches and asthma and rashes erupting in black bumps over their bodies. Her two youngest boys seem okay, but Marcus has problems.

    "You ever been in a quiet room and you can hear somebody breathing?" she asks. "It's like every breath they take is a deep breath."

    At 3992 Talisman Ave., Jean Roshell remembers coming home to find ""there were children sliding down that pile of dirt." Her own kids ran indoors from the school bus during the excavation because the air burned their eyes.

    At 108 Killarney Court, Anna Smith hasn't opened a window in three years. She fears the breezes that made her want to gag when they were digging out there. She takes daily pills for her nerves. "I'm hoping and praying every day of my life that I get out of here," she says.

    In a pleasant, woodsy neighborhood across town, Margaret Williams sits at an oak kitchen table that always seems strewn with Citizens Against Toxic Exposure papers.

    The group's president, she now lives far from the chemical waste dumps, but her thoughts cannot escape the neighborhood where six of her family members came down with cancer.

    She remembers the woman down the block who had two husbands die of cancer, and the woman next door who had some eye problem nobody could diagnose. Then she talks of her own children, of the son who died at birth, and the son who died as an infant, and of the haunting uncertainties.

    "You never know. These chemicals can lie dormant in your body for years. Especially the dioxin," she says.

    Williams has another reason to hope the EPA will relocate this neighborhood soon. Her childhood home, the house with four white crosses out front, is now the home of a granddaughter who needed a place to stay. It's at 27 Pearl, across the street from Lisa Wiggins and her boys.

    Reasons to leave

    Cancer rarely comes with an ID tag. Its causes can be dietary, genetic or environmental. Its effects may be separated from the cause by decades.

    Nationally, it is the most common cause of death after heart disease.

    No formal health study has been done of the people who live around the Escambia site. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry offered one, but the neighborhood has grown suspicious of federal agencies.

    The Citizens Against Toxic Exposure showed the proposed study to consultants who told them it was designed to be inconclusive, and the residents declined to participate.

    But the EPA's decision in Pensacola will rest on more than health data.

    The agency now has a team of officials working on its Pensacola pilot project. Hankinson says its relocation decision - which could come as soon as next month - will consider factors such as lost property values, racial inequities and "stress-related aspects" of living by a Superfund site.

    "What is the overall impact on a community adjacent to one of these sites?

    It's a much broader assessment than we've tried to do at other sites," he says.

    In addition, he says the EPA will assess the plain budgetary possibility that "there may be cost savings to be achieved by not having neighbors when you go to do the cleanup."

    With a small federal grant, the neighborhood has hired a consultant, Joel Hirschhorn, who previously headed the hazardous waste program at the congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

    Hirschhorn thinks the health risks alone are reason enough to relocate this neighborhood.

    The contamination levels and the diversity of toxic chemicals are both very bad, he says. "It's one of the worst sites I've seen in the last 16 years. . . On a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 10."
    At 14 Spruce St., Annie Toles lives one-tenth of a mile north of the site, too far away to be included in the EPA's initial relocation plan.

    She owns one of the prettiest homes in the neighborhood, a brick house with hand-carved cabinets and oak furniture designed by her late husband, James, who taught woodworking at a high school.

    Toles wants to leave this house.

    She started coughing in October 1991, the month the EPA excavation began.  Now her throat has a concave area on one side.

    The tumor was found in December 1991. It started near her ear and grew so rapidly that her doctor called it malignant without waiting for biopsy results.

    Her coughing stopped after the surgery. Her fears of the chemical smell in the air outside did not.

    She no longer sleeps beside an open window or grows vegetables in her garden. She hasn't gone outdoors much in the three years since James died.

    When she takes out the trash, "I come right back inside," she says. "I just don't want to inhale the air."
Copyright 1996 Times Publishing Company
St. Petersburg Times
June 23, 1996, Sunday, 0 South Pinellas Edition
LOAD-DATE: June 25, 1996