In a dramatic turnabout, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to evacuate all residents from a neighborhood in Pensacola contaminated with dioxin wastes.
The agency announced Thursday that 358 families near the abandoned site of the Escambia Treating Co. will be moved at federal expense within a year.
Only twice has the federal government moved more people from a hazardous waste site - when it evacuated the infamous Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, and when it closed Times Beach, a Missouri town flooded with dioxin wastes.
Just six weeks ago, the EPA presented a plan that offered to relocate less than one-third of the neighborhood around Pensacola's dioxin site.
"I'M just elated right now. I don't know why they changed it, but I'm glad they did," said Margaret Williams, the president of a neighborhood group called Citizens Against Toxic Exposure.
The relocation is expected to cost more than $18-million.
Residents have lived and worked in the shadow of the toxic waste site - dubbed "Mount Dioxin" - for years. Their pleas drew help from major national environmental groups, and their relocation may set national policy for dozens of other communities that surround toxic-waste sites.
"Obviously, there are health concerns," said John Hankinson, regional administrator for the EPA in Atlanta. "There are folks who have been exposed to potential contamination. Many of them have lived next to the site, or worked at the facility, for years."
The site, which once contained a wood-treatment plant, is a witch's brew of dioxin, arsenic and other chemicals.
After relocating residents, the EPA will demolish the homes. Then, next spring or summer, the federal government will begin a laborious cleanup. The contaminated dirt will be trucked away, but officials aren't yet sure where it will go.
The EPA chose the Escambia site as its pilot for a program that promised environmental justice to minority communities living near hazardous waste sites.
The meaning of that promise changed considerably in a series of revised plans.
In April, the EPA told residents of the predominantly black community it could justify moving only 66 families near the site. In August, the agency offered to move a total of 101 households, but left about 250 other families in limbo.
The decision to relocate the entire neighborhood came one month before the presidential election - and two days after 100 groups and individuals petitioned President Clinton in a full-page USA Today ad to move "the Mount Dioxin community."
For residents, getting the government to recognize their plight has been a long and painful effort.
Many are retirees living in homes they cannot sell. Their neighborhood, once the place in Pensacola where a black family could buy a house, had become a community where people feared the air they breathed and the ground where their gardens once grew.
The soil in their neighborhood holds traces of dioxin, a byproduct of chemical processes that is considered dangerous in microscopic amounts.
The contamination was caused by a company that treated wood poles and pilings in Pensacola for 40 years. It shut down soon after Congress began enacting hazardous waste laws.
But some residents blame the EPA for contributing to the hazard by excavating 255,000 cubic yards of dioxin-tainted dirt into a hill that still overlooks their neighborhood.
Dozens have put little white crosses in front of their homes, signifying the deaths of family members who lived within.
Four of those crosses were at the childhood home of their group leader, Margaret Williams, who lost two children and watched her parents die of cancer there.
Neighborhood residents greeted the latest revision with a mixture of delight, surprise and nervousness about what will happen next.
Anna Smith, a 79-year-old widow, has kept her windows closed for years because she feels the outdoor air makes her sick.
"I'm happy," she said Thursday, but "it's going to be hard for some people to find some place to go, I know that."
Annie Toles, a homeowner who had throat cancer surgery and now rarely ventures outdoors, wondered how long it will take the EPA to carry out its new plan. "I just hate to wait much longer," she said. "I'm getting too old to pack my stuff up."
With the residents gone, the government will clean the site to levels deemed safe for "light industrial," in hopes industry will move in, environmental officials say.
"Our priority is to protect the health and welfare of the families and respect the unique needs of this community," said EPA administrator Carol Browner. "Relocation allows us to do just that - protect the families, clean up the site, and renew the community."
About 200 of the affected residents live in a federal housing project called Escambia Arms. Those residents will get help moving to another subsidized housing project, officials said. People who own single-family homes will get federal appraisals, and then the government will give them cash for their homes or relocate them to another home.
The federal government is promising to give the residents "fair market value."
"We're going to push very hard that they not appraise those homes just as homes next to a toxic waste dump," said Dick Green, an EPA official overseeing the relocation from the agency's Atlanta office.
"Whatever the fair market value turns out to be, the law provides that up to $ 22,500 can be added to it if an equivalent home cannot be found at that price."
Families who accept cash instead of a new home will be paid fair market value and relocation costs.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to release a timetable for the relocation in a few weeks.
News of the EPA decision traveled fast.
"A lot of people have been paying attention to this," said Lois Gibbs, who was among 900 families evacuated from Love Canal and now runs the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste.
EPA spokesman Dave Cohen said the USA Today ad, which Gibbs helped sponsor, did not prompt the relocation announcement.
"This thing had been in the works for a long time," Cohen said. "It's not something that could have been turned around that quickly."
Joel Hirschhorn, a technical adviser to the Pensacola neighborhood group, said he thought a national newspaper ad and an upcoming presidential election may have helped the EPA make a just decision.
What remains to be seen, he said, is whether the Pensacola decision is a case of political expediency or a signal of changing policies.
In Tifton, Ga., a black neighborhood faces "a very, very similar situation," he said. "Pensacola is not unique. It's a terrible place, but we've got lots of other terrible places just like it."