These are the Things that have Happened

    PENSACOLA, Fla. - These are the things that have happened to the people who lived in Margaret Williams, house:

    Her parents and an uncle died of cancer. Williams had a baby who was stillborn and another who died of respiratory problems after three months. Her daughter gave birth to a child with six toes on each foot.

    A constant over the decades: Two toxic waste sites, blocks from the single-story, brown-brick house where Williams, family has lived and suffered.

    Were those sites to blame for their heartache? Williams thinks so. And her neighbors - with their own tales of cancer, skin rashes, breathing problems, heart disease and other illnesses - also are convinced that they have been sickened by the poisons around them.

    But the story of "Mount Dioxin," as the more polluted of the two sites is known, is not just about environmental horrors; it is about race, as well.

    Williams and most of her neighbors are black, and many are certain this is why the government has not done more to get them out.

    "I think if this had been a white neighborhood living between two Superfund sites, and once they found out the levels of contamination here, we wouldn't have had a problem," said Williams, a retired teacher and president of Citizens Against Toxic Exposure.

    Federal officials deny that racism was involved; they are now considering a 23.1 million proposal to relocate up to 453 families.

    "In fact, this community is getting extra consideration," said Mark Fite, project director for the Environmental Protection Agency. "We've moved and accelerated this thing much more than the normal site."

    But it has been a long time coming.

    For years, the Escambia Wood Treating Co. bathed wooden pilings and utility poles in creosote and pentachlorophenol. At a nearby plant, another company, Agrico, manufactured fertilizer.

    James Robinson has lived near the fertilizer plant for 36 years and recalled when the air was thick with dust.

    "There were times when you start off from three blocks to go to your house and you couldn't see your house," Robinson said. His wife often would have to rinse clothes again after they were hung out to dry.

    "Your eyes would be burning," Robinson recalled. "When it was operating you couldn't hardly sleep at night. You had to keep the doors closed at all times."

    Frank Pickett lives about a block from the abandoned wood-treating plant where he and many of his neighbors once worked. Pickett said he was restricted to the plant's pentachlorophenol section.

    "I couldn't work around creosote," he said, recalling the pungent odor. "I'd start sneezing and I couldn't stop."

    The factories were abandoned in the 1980s.

    The EPA spent $4 million on an emergency basis to excavate 250,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil - enough to fill 12,500 dump trucks - at the Escambia site in 1993 to halt contamination of ground water.

    But the soil remains piled at the site, standing nearly 60 feet high and covered by gray plastic sheeting - hence, the Mount Dioxin nickname. Two intersecting mounds of soil, one about 1,000 feet long and the other about 300 feet - together roughly the size of four football fields - will stay until EPA decides on a permanent solution.

    Taxpayers probably will have to foot the bill, estimated at $35 million to $154 million, to clean up the Escambia site; the company is defunct. A $10 million cleanup project has begun at the Agrico site with the former owners paying the cost.

    Meanwhile, for nearly four years, residents of this tree-lined community of modest but well-kept homes have sought government help to move.

    The EPA was worried about setting a precedent by admitting dioxin is more dangerous than previously thought, and has responded cautiously. For years, the EPA contended that toxins from the sites had not spread significantly.

    Finally neighbors persuaded the agency to test their yards last summer, and this is what they found:

    Arsenic, PCBS, benzo(a)pyrene, lead and dieldrin, a pesticide banned in the 1970s. And dioxin - in 16 yards, levels exceeded the EPA standard for this chemical.

    A preliminary EPA study has found dioxin is a likely cause of cancer and a threat to immune, reproductive and developmental systems.

Copyright 1996 San Antonio Express-News
San Antonio Express-News
March 11, 1996, Monday
SECTION: Pg. 9, Part A
SOURCE: Associated Press
LOAD-DATE: August 26, 1998