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Old 05-05-2008, 11:28 AM #1
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Join Date: Aug 2006
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Post Small-town residents living on deadly ground

Small-town residents living on deadly ground
BY RONNIE GREENE
In this deeply rooted village in Southwest Florida, it's not unusual to find generations of the same family living doors apart. Now these lifelong settlers are bracing for their hamlet to die.
The water in this black community tucked between Bradenton and Sarasota is poisoned with cancer-causing chemicals leaked from an old beryllium plant that anchors the neighborhood of 80 homes.

The health toll is still being gauged, but the residents have cause to fear the worst.

For more than three years, neither the plant's owner nor Florida state regulators who had learned of the leak bothered to tell them.

''I feel cheated,'' said Laura Ward. ``The treatment we have gotten in this community is deplorable.''

Ward was the first Tallevast resident to learn of the toxic chemicals beneath the community. Her first clue came when she happened to look out her window one day in 2003 to see a giant rig drilling monitoring wells on her property.

In time, she and others would learn of the pollution's reach: Tallevast, a century-old village that covers just 1.5 square miles, is sitting on a 200-acre toxic plume, filled with sick residents and confronted with sinking property values.

Residents and environmental activists say the town is part of a national problem expanding like the foul plume under the community's feet.

It's called environmental racism, and it refers to a pattern in which minority communities frequently become industrial dumping grounds.

From Florida to Louisiana, Texas, California and beyond, working-class and poor communities of color are battling contamination that destroys homes and families. A recent national study, ''Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007,'' found that black, Hispanic and other minorities are disproportionately clustered near hazardous plants -- and in growing percentages.

''It's always impacting their health, yet they are not being told what's going on,'' said chemist Wilma Subra, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow from Louisiana who has studied contamination across the country, including in Tallevast. ``And they are treated like fifth-class citizens.''

Viewed as powerless for decades, these communities are increasingly fighting back, engaging in David vs. Goliath battles where David sometimes -- though not always -- wins.

KEPT IN THE DARK

Tallevast has not won anything, just yet, in its battle with corporate giant Lockheed Martin, which never operated the plant but owned it when the leak was discovered in 2000 and is liable for its cleanup.

The state of Florida also knew of the contamination but failed to tell residents.

''That was abhorrent,'' said Rep. Bill Galvano, Tallevast's representative in the Florida Legislature. ``The community had a complete lack of trust at that point, and you could not blame them.''

Today the village is little more than a giant environmental testing ground, where day-to-day life has stalled as more than 200 wells monitor a plume that spread from an initial estimate of 5 acres to more than 200. Residents' yards are cluttered with orange flags that mark soil-boring tests.

''The community is being taken away from us,'' said Clifford ''Billy'' Ward, Laura's husband, who was born in Tallevast, earned his dental license and came home to the place where his grandparents helped found the Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church.

The Wards are among the community leaders filing lawsuits against Lockheed Martin and others seeking medical testing, relocation to a community with clean air and water, and damages for lost property values.

Their home, just off Tallevast Road, is on eight acres of land, big enough for their children and grandchildren to set up homesteads. It is covered with 13 monitoring wells and more than two dozen orange flags, symbolic death markers to their hopes of a family estate.

'Every day we see that, and every day we cry a little bit in our spirit, thinking that, `Lord, what are we to do?' '' Billy said.

''I can see my dreams kind of flying away,'' he said, flapping his arms like a bird taking flight. ``The things that I desired to do for my children, flying away.''

THE PRESENCE OF DEATH

Mount Tabor church stands on Tallevast Road, next to Ward's dental practice.

Directly across the street: The now-shuttered American Beryllium Company plant, which manufactured parts for nuclear reactors and weapons. Before it closed in 1996, workers' daily routines included handling deadly poisons and hazardous dust, and a toxic degreaser used to clean equipment leaked into the groundwater for untold numbers of years.

The church often holds wakes for the dead.

''It seemed like every Saturday for a while we were going to funerals, going to funerals,'' said Wanda Washington, a lifelong resident and vice president of FOCUS, the community's nonprofit group. ``When is this going to stop?''

As two Miami Herald journalists visited last month, Washington prepared for another Saturday funeral -- that of a cousin, 79, a former plant janitor who died from a heart condition.

There's no medical evidence linking heart disease to pollution from the plant. Yet, suspicion and doubt are so ever-present in Tallevast, the family suspects it played a role.

Cancer is a more concrete concern.

Florida health officials cite an elevated cancer risk for Tallevast residents exposed to toxic groundwater over long periods, but a definitive study linking exposure to cases has not been done. Instead, residents in the town of some 250 chart cancer cases on a map with stick pins -- they count 80 over the last decade or two -- in a grim exercise shrouded in unanswered questions.

At the Friday wake, Washington stood over her cousin's body in a casket, staring wearily as friends came to support her.

Sitting up front was her Uncle Charlie Ziegler, a former plant janitor who struggles with his breathing and needs an oxygen tank at home. Ziegler is among the residents who sued Lockheed Martin, alleging the company intentionally hid the contamination.

Ziegler, 72, is afflicted with berylliosis, a potentially deadly lung disease caused by exposure to beryllium dust, which was produced as the metal was machined -- akin to grinding metal shavings. His wife, Beatrice, also has berylliosis, as does his brother-in-law. Neither worked at the plant, but both lived with him and were exposed to the dust that covered his work clothes.

''You're breathing the dust and the dust goes down into your lungs,'' said Ziegler, who worked at the plant for 21 years. ``Beryllium is just like a slow death. That's all it is. A slow death.''

He and his wife must travel to Tennessee for treatment. ''You can't live like this,'' Beatrice said. ``This is our health.''

The health issues in Tallevast stem from two sources:

The leak into the ground and the community's drinking water, which may have begun decades ago but was discovered in January 2000 as Lockheed Martin was selling the property.

Contamination from inside the beryllium plant, with the dust covering workers' clothes and waste carried into the community's air.

''That dust is very, very toxic,'' chemist Subra said. ``The duct work was full of dust. There was dust everywhere. And the workers carried that dust home on their clothes and introduced that dust back into their community and into their houses.''

THE DISTRUST OF LOCALS

The residents say Manatee County has ignored them and that Lockheed Martin deliberately misled them.

''They are still in denial, they still have their heads in the sand and pretend nothing is wrong in the county,'' Laura Ward said of local government.

Manatee County officials say that, with the industry and state handling cleanup and health issues, there is little they can do.

''I know it's a slower process than the folks out in Tallevast want,'' said Dan Schlandt, the deputy county administrator. ``But I'm not sure what can be done to make it go faster.''

Lockheed Martin said state laws in effect at the time did not require the company or state to inform residents of what was happening.

''This is not anything Lockheed Martin was trying to keep secret,'' said spokeswoman Gail Rymer. ``We were following the guidelines. And we found that, in hindsight, we wished we would have engaged them earlier.''

She said the company has changed its practices. ''We are engaging the community at the beginning instead of waiting to see if there is an impact,'' Rymer said.

In 2005, Tallevast residents prompted a change in state law that requires polluters to notify communities within 30 days and survey all wells near a contamination source. It's called the Tallevast Bill.

''You won't have a situation like that in the future,'' said Rep. Galvano, who supported the change. But for Tallevast, ``That doesn't help them.''

Lockheed Martin said the contamination has been capped and insists the plume will not spread and that the village is safe. The company said it offers housing and health programs for residents and does not discriminate.

It has until September to draw up a plan for the massive cleanup.

''I know it's going to take some time, but I just want them to know we are going to make this work,'' Rymer said, ``and I hope that we can at some point have their trust.''

Said Billy Ward: ``Why should we take the word of the offender?''

A HISTORY OF THE PLANT

The plant history dates to 1962, when the American Beryllium Company began manufacturing machine parts from beryllium metals at the hub at 1600 Tallevast Road.

The dust and cuttings from the machining were recovered through a central vacuum system, and the company kept drums of sludge labeled ``Beryllium, Poisonous.''

Sumps around the facility collected wastewater from the plant and spills from the drums.

''You could smell the chemical smell so strong, half the time I would hold my breath when cleaning out the tanks,'' said Morris Robinson, 49, a one-time janitor, who said he suffers a shortness of breath at night and constant headaches.

In 1996, Lockheed Martin acquired American Beryllium's parent, Loral Corporation. But it did not conduct an environmental assessment, as the plant was just one asset of a larger purchase, Rymer said.

In August 1997, planning to sell the plant, Lockheed Martin began an assessment.

An initial screening detected only beryllium above soil cleanup levels set by Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP.

Yet in 1999, with the state's soil cleanup guidelines updated, the results were reexamined. This time, samples near four sumps exceeded cleanup target levels for total petroleum hydrocarbons and the toxin tetrachloroethene, according to a report by a consultant for Lockheed Martin.

Several sumps were removed for testing, and soil was excavated.

And, significantly, in January 2000, groundwater beneath the plant was collected for testing.

The leak was discovered that month, the groundwater tainted with a string of toxins including trichloroethylene, or TCE, a solvent that removes grease from metal parts.

A cancer risk in drinking water, the colorless liquid TCE can remain in groundwater for extremely long periods.

With the state directing Lockheed Martin to dig deeper, the company's consultant in 2001 concluded that toxins ``may be migrating off-site.''

In September 2001, 538 tons of tainted soil were excavated from the plant and disposed of.

Yet as this testing continued in 2002, as memos were exchanged and meetings held between the state and Lockheed Martin, the residents of Tallevast were told nothing -- even in 2002, as the state ''raised concerns about potential impacts to off-site private wells,'' records show.

Why didn't the state inform the community?

''I don't believe we had a regulation,'' said Pamala Vazquez, a DEP spokeswoman.

A SHATTERED COMMUNITY

One fall day in 2003, Laura Ward peered out her window and glimpsed the rig drilling wells on her property. Startled, she traipsed across her lawn and asked what they were doing.

''You don't know, but the water's contaminated here,'' the man answered. ``We're putting in monitoring wells in your community.''

This was the first time residents had an inkling that their water was tainted, and it outraged them.

The news came as the village was at a crossroads. Just four months earlier, 11 Tallevast residents had formed the grass-roots group FOCUS -- Family Oriented Community United Strong -- with an entirely different mission in mind.

For decades, the residents had seen Bradenton and Sarasota boom around them as Tallevast failed to secure even sidewalks on its main road. Now, they were forming a nonprofit group to spur business development and expand affordable housing for their corner of southern Manatee.

''This is the last frontier of Manatee County when you're looking at developing,'' said Laura Ward, the FOCUS president. ``We wanted this community to be looking like other communities.''

Tallevast draws little attention outside its small borders, but its roots run deep. Before the contamination, residents celebrated Christmas week by having a party at a different house each night, and they kept their doors unlocked.

''It's a community where in the middle of the night, if somebody died, everyone is up,'' said Laura Ward.

That peace is shattered.

''We love this place. We grew up in it, we built our homes here,'' said Peggy Ward, a lifelong resident and Billy's sister, who takes five pills to control her blood pressure. ``We've got children and grandchildren and great grandchildren to worry about. It may be too late for me.''

Once discovered, the documented size of the plume kept expanding -- and was larger and more toxic than Lockheed Martin was reporting, the state DEP found in a 2004 report.

How could Lockheed Martin understate the size and extent of the contamination? ''It's a building process as you step out of the defining area of the contamination,'' said Rymer. ``The reports get more definite.''

The numbers were stunning. In one spot, the concentration of cancer-causing TCE was 10,000 times above state standards. Five of the seven irrigation wells the state sampled showed levels of TCE above Florida drinking-water standards.

Bottled water was given to residents using well water, and county hookups provided to homes not previously linked to the public supply. In the 1980s, Manatee County had extended municipal water lines to the neighborhood around the plant, but two dozen homes had continued to use their own wells for drinking and showering.

A state review of 129 soil samples also found arsenic, lead and other contaminants above cleanup standards.

The groundwater was a ''public health hazard,'' and residents who drank and showered with it over long periods face 'a `low' to a 'very high' increased theoretical risk of kidney cancer, liver cancer, leukemia and lymphoma,'' Florida's Department of Health said this February. The state concluded that the soil, while contaminated, does not pose a public health hazard.

UNSETTLED ISSUES

In Tallevast, everyone can tell of a friend, relative or former co-worker who is sick, dying or dead.

''I check the obituaries every day for all the guys that worked with us,'' said Ervin Smith, 44, a former plant janitor and shipping and receiving worker.

His aunt and uncle, Arthur and Ruth Bryant, for decades operated Bryant's Grocery Store, directly across the plant, where beryllium workers went for lunch. He said both died of cancer, Ruth in 2003 and Arthur a year later.

He said his father, former janitor Earnest Smith, died of cancer in 1995.

Several months ago, a 34-year-old lifelong resident died of lymphoma, neighbors said.

''Lockheed's saying it's OK to live, OK for the kids,'' said Smith, watching his daughter play in the street not far from a playground area that abuts the plant. ``They're testing every day, air and water and soil, right next to the community center. I don't buy it at all, that the kids are OK.''

The residents want out, but their wish has not been granted.

''Everyone's life is on hold,'' said Washington. ``There is nothing they can do to calm our fears.''

Lockheed Martin created a program to help residents sell their homes by subsidizing the sale price to the level it would be if there were no contamination. ''If any resident wants to sell their home, we will guarantee them fair market value for their home,'' Rymer said.

The community says the offer is of little value.

''You're not going to be able to get enough money with the value of your property to buy property anywhere else,'' Laura Ward said.

The company has declined community demands for a full relocation from the plant. ''There's no health or environmental reason to disrupt this community and relocate them,'' said Rymer.

Rep. Galvano had hoped to broker a relocation settlement by now.

''The only people leaving the community are leaving because of death and severe illness,'' he said.

As she prepared for Friday evening's wake, Peggy Ward said she is stunned the community's pleas have not been answered.

''It's been five years and we're still here and we're still fighting,'' she said. ``Because people are dying out, we start to wonder if they're waiting for all of us to die out.''

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