ST. PETERSBURG - Homeowner Jim Abel spruced up his yard last May with new sod, landscaping, sprinklers and a well for irrigation.
"With the water shortage, I had a lot of freedom with the well," he said.
Abel had no inkling the industrial drill rigs that started appearing in the street in front of his 12th Avenue home might foreshadow a problem with his irrigation well.
A toxic plume of industrial waste discovered by workers building the Pinellas Trail 17 years ago is now coursing through groundwater under Abel's Azalea neighborhood, beneath parks, playgrounds and hundreds of homes, according to samples drawn from test wells.
Abel, like many people who live there, didn't have a clue about the chemical cocktail creeping through the water table.
There are hundreds of private irrigation wells within the area of possible contamination. However, neither the state Department of Environmental Protection nor Raytheon Network Centric Systems has alerted homeowners to the south, even though they have known for three years that the plume is migrating toward that neighborhood.
Raytheon inherited the pollution problem from E-Systems, the defense plant's former owner. Company officials say newsletters were sent out in 1999 detailing the contamination problem at the company's 72nd Street plant site. They offer no evidence, however, of where the newsletters went or of notifying homeowners within the past three years, when environmental technicians hired by the company found the plume had spread.
The pollutants include such industrial chemicals as 1,4-dioxane, TCE and vinyl chloride, all considered hazardous to humans. Under certain circumstances, exposure to some of the chemicals could be fatal.
The company said there is no danger. The DEP said there is no risk to people because no one drinks the groundwater.
"From a human health standpoint you couldn't have a better scenario," said DEP spokeswoman Pamela Vazquez.
Determining The Risks
Vazquez said her agency established in the early 1990s that no one was drinking the contaminated groundwater and that the agency hasn't had reason for concern since signing a consent order in 1995 making E-Systems deal with the problem.
Drinking the water, however, is not the only danger, according to one local groundwater expert.
"It sounds like in that particular neighborhood a lot of people have private irrigation wells where they draw irrigation water from their own property, which means there probably is an exposure route for those people," said Jeffrey Cunningham, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida who specializes in the cleanup of contaminated soil and water.
Cunningham, at the request of a reporter, reviewed test results gleaned from thousands of documents generated as part of the ongoing DEP pollution case.
"Based on the numbers I'm looking at in these test results, if I had an irrigation well that was drawing the same water as being measured here, I'd be pretty concerned," Cunningham said.
He said most of the risk stems from inhaling chemicals that could vaporize into the air during irrigation.
There is also some danger if people have physical contact with the contaminated water, he said.
A test conducted for this story to determine the level of dioxane in Abel's well came up negative for the chemical.
That gave Abel little comfort, however, now that he knows the test well on the city street next to his home has yielded samples of dioxane at 30 times the level that is considered safe.
He wanted to know whether the water from his 20-foot-deep irrigation well is safe.
"Do I continue to water my yard and take the risk of something happening or just let the yard die away and deal with it?" Abel said.
News Channel 8 hired a private firm, Environmental Conservation Laboratories of Orlando, to test samples from Abel's well water specifically for dioxane. The company also tested samples taken from two other private wells in Abel's neighborhood.
None of the three well water samples revealed detectable levels of the chemical, but Cunningham said no one should interpret those samples as a clean bill of health for the neighborhood, given Raytheon's own test well results.
"If that plume is there, it certainly appears to me there's a significant hazard."
Hundreds of Irrigation Wells
The DEP said that in the 16 years since its pollution investigation began, Raytheon has sampled water from just one private irrigation well. That well also came up clean, but there are hundreds more that have not been tested.
Mapping experts with the Southwest Florida Water Management District said the agency has issued permits for an estimated 204 private irrigation wells within a half-mile radius of Raytheon and about 691 within one mile.
Weeks ago, Vazquez said that DEP did not know the number or location of private wells.
She later said DEP had the private well data a year ago, but there is no indication that anyone in that agency has used it for any purpose.
Hydrogeologist Sandy Nettles, of N.S. Nettles and Associates of Palm Harbor, said "if you have 700 wells available, you should go canvass them."
Cunningham also said the state or Raytheon should be testing the private wells.
"If people in that neighborhood have irrigation wells that they use to water their lawns, they probably want to know whether or not their particular wells have been impacted by the chemicals that are being found in the groundwater," Cunningham said.
The DEP's Vazquez said that Raytheon has an obligation to test every private well with a quarter mile of its toxic plume.
That would mean Raytheon has to test the wells between now and May 31, when the DEP said a final evaluation and cleanup proposal comes due.
Ryan Robinette, who lives near Jim Abel, said he wants someone to test his water right away. Robinette worries about his Labrador retriever, Sampson. "My dog drinks my well water so that concerns me. My dog is like my kid, practically."
Sue Olsen lives on nearby Robinson Drive and shares another concern voiced by her Azalea neighbors Robinette and Abel.
They all want to know why the state has kept them in the dark.
"I'd have liked to known when I bought my house," Olsen said, "and I'd like to know now what they're doing to correct the problem."
St. Petersburg Councilman Herb Polson said Raytheon officials contacted him last week when they learned that this story was about to become public. They told him then that the plume was moving into the Azalea neighborhood. Polson said he advised the Raytheon representatives that they should immediately notify area neighborhood associations.
"I thought there was a responsibility there," Polson said.
The chemicals probably leaked from a waste tank at the defense plant when E-Systems owned the property.
The company produced electronic components for the defense and space industry, and the chemicals now showing up in groundwater are products or byproducts of the work.
The chemical that DEP records show has moved the farthest at concentrations of up to 30 to 60 times the safe level is 1,4-dioxane.
"Exposure to very high levels of dioxane can result in liver and kidney damage and death," according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.
Its documents say people who inhale low levels of dioxane vapors for short periods report eye and nose irritation. The agency advises children not to play in mud or water contaminated with the chemical.
Vinyl chloride, which is showing up at 210 times the safe level in groundwater under the ball field at Azalea Park, is a known carcinogen, according to the registry. The health effects of exposure to vinyl chloride range from dizziness to death, and it "might affect growth and development" of children.
Other industrial chemicals such as TCE, chloromethane, and 1,1-dichlorethene are also showing up in unhealthy levels in test wells on or around the Raytheon property.
Cunningham said dioxane often is the first chemical to show up as groundwater pollution spreads, but he doubts it will be the last in this case.
"If dioxane is there now, the other chemicals are probably on their way."
And some of those, he suggests, are even more troubling.
"Vinyl chloride is known to be a very potent carcinogen, and if and when those chemicals start showing up, then we've really got a pretty serious health risk."
No Health Risk?
Raytheon public relations senior manager George Rhynedance initially declined to answer questions about the health risks associated with the plume but later released a statement that, among other things, said "a risk assessment completed in 2005 by a firm specializing in such work concluded that cumulative human health risk estimates are well below the levels of concern used by" state and federal environmental agencies.
Rhynedance would not share a copy of that assessment, discuss its scope or identify the company that produced it. He said Raytheon did not give a copy to the DEP and "that risk assessment is currently being updated."
DEP'S Vazquez said her agency also thinks no one in the Azalea neighborhood is in danger.
When pressed for the basis of that opinion, Vazquez asked and answered a series of her own questions: "Are folks out there safe? Absolutely. Are they drinking safe water? Absolutely. Do we expect someone to understand why it takes 15 years to this point? No, because they don't have the expertise."
Cunningham, who earned his doctorate in environmental and civil engineering from Stanford University, said he can't figure out why the DEP didn't force the companies to clean up the pollution before the plume oozed into the ground under the neighborhood.
Vazquez conceded that if left unchecked, the plume eventually could make its way into the seagrass, oyster beds and marine life of Boca Ciega Bay.
She said she is aware of no studies that predict the environmental effects if that were to happen.
The leading edge of waste has traveled half the distance from the Raytheon property in that direction during the past three years.
Cunningham said something needs to be done soon.
"It looks like probably the water's moving toward the bay, in which case it's only a matter of time before that contamination reaches the bay unless some sort of corrective action is taken to prevent the chemicals from getting there."
Rhynedance said Raytheon hopes to finish assessing the problem soon and initiate a cleanup sometime in 2009.
Editor's note. The level of vinyl chloride found in groundwater under the ball field at Azalea Park was misstated. The actual figure is 210 times the safe limit.