St. Pete residents hear Raytheon's plans to clean up Azalea contamination

05/11/11 Janelle Irwin
WMNF Drive-Time News Wednesday | Listen to this entire show:

Following a long battle from residents, Raytheon finally presented its solution to the groundwater contamination it is charged with leaving throughout St. Petersburg’s Azalea neighborhood. Raytheon officials presented their clean up plan, but some residents are still not satisfied with the response.

The contamination affecting Azalea residents was first discovered in 1991, before it was purchased by a company called E-Systems. But news of the contamination wasn’t made available to residents until 2008. In the years since then some homeowners have filed law suits and many more called on local politicians to make Raytheon clean up its mess. Last night they heard from Pamela Vasquez, the acting director for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Southwest District. Vasquez introduced the Remedial Action Plan, or RAP, to homeowners.

"DEP and EPA, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, are what we call a technical review and that's what we provide so submitting it's.., I'm sorry, Raytheon submitted it's initial proposed clean up plan in April, 2009. Experts with the state DEP, several of which are here tonight and we'll introduce them, have teamed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to focus primarily on Raytheon's cleanup plan. Through this intense review we determine if Raytheon's plan meets all the criteria of the state's rules. We're also charged with determining if they, as the responsible party, if their plan is both effective and efficient. While we have not taken formal action we believe that Raytheon, again the responsible party, has done both and has proposed a very aggressive cleanup plan."

Since notifying homeowners in 2008, Raytheon representatives say they have taken steps to manage and minimize the hazards to property located within the contaminated area. The interim resolution that Raytheon has implemented is known as ‘pump and treat.' This method consists of pumping contaminated groundwater into underground wells, treating them to remove any harmful chemicals and then returning them to the regular drainage system. Raytheon’s senior manager of remedial programs Robert Luhrs explained why this method is currently being used and will continue throughout the RAP process.

"The first one is pump and treat. This is standard technology. It has been the remediation method of choice for contaminated sites since probably the late 70's, early 80's. There had been a period where people have gone away from it. It is the best remedy for this site because of the one compound that we're dealing with, '...' dioxene can't be treated with many other approaches and that pump and treat is going to be community wide."

The pump and treat method that is already underway will be followed by thermal remediation, a process that will heat the groundwater and soil to liberate contaminants so that they may be safely removed from the environment. The final step, a process called oxidation that will treat contaminants with a neutralizing chemical, is expected to be underway by late this year. The implementation of this process is expected to reduce the overall area of affected land over the course of several years. Contamination levels will continue to be monitored on a quarterly basis and the scope of contamination will be re-evaluated at least every five years. Luhrs also reassured homeowners who were concerned about potential health risks.

"In the site assessment report I think the most important finding was that the condition that's out there that we'll be discussing tonight, there are a number of contaminants in the ground but Raytheon's experts as well as state experts working for both the Department of Environmental Protection and the State Board of Health all have unanimously come to the same independent conclusion that there is no threat to health from any potential exposure pathway whether it be drinking water, soil, vapor, soil conditions, outdoor air, etc."

But not everyone is buying it. Homeowner Tom McClure says there might not be any evidence yet, but the possibility should never be ruled out.

"We've always felt that way, we felt safe here. We've done different beautifying projects and stuff like that. We've always tried to be active. Since this thing is happening and since we were told about it, which was years later, we were different people that had been sick that had passed on or people that were sick and of course they say there was nothing to do with that. We may find out 10 years, 15 years from now that that wasn't true. That it was something else."

Homeowners were given the opportunity to ask questions of a panel consisting of geologists and project specialists, including Luhrs. Their questions ranged from sinkhole risks to the inaccuracy of information regarding which areas were affected and which were not. Joseph Tavares’ concern focused on property values. He said it is difficult to quantify the effect this issue has had on property values given the current real estate market, but owning property that has been stigmatized as contaminated can’t be helping. He said Raytheon should at least give homeowners an idea of how long this contamination will continue.

"My question was: 'how long will our properties be deemed to be contaminated? Is it 3 years, 5 years, 80 years?' They're chart went all the way to 80 years. If I can anticipate that my property or our properties are going to be deemed to be contaminated for 80 years, with that type of stigma around the property, our devaluation will last for 80 years."

Raytheon has partnered with three agencies to come up with a plan that will satisfy both homeowners and regulators. Research conducted in partnership with these agencies has established a boundary for the contaminated area. Many homeowners are concerned that some homes that fall within the boundary may not be contaminated or worse, that homes falling out of the boundaries may actually be affected. Luhrs explained that those fears are without warrant.

"We can't say '...' we know exactly where it is. And that's why, you might recall, when I talked about '...' runoff I said that line encompassed every detection above a regulatory limit plus some '...' so we don't expect everything in that area to be contaminated, we know that circle encompasses everything that's contaminated."

Though Raytheon is making detailed plans for a clean up effort, residents are still left with a bad taste in their mouth, even if it isn’t from their water. McClure said he’d get fined if he improperly threw away an oil can while Raytheon seems to be getting slack from regulating agencies.

"I think it's a smoke screen. I can't understand why Raytheon didn't get fined when they knew that they were at fault. They should have gotten fined. I would have gotten fined, in addition to having to make this thing right."

note: a shorter version of this story aired on the WMNF Drive-Time News. This is the longer web version.

Previous WMNF news coverage of Raytheon

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