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Radioactive water flowed to thousands of homes 10,000 Pensacola, Gulf Breeze residents drank unsafe water for 54 months

Scott Streater @PensacolaNewsJournal.com

Thousands of people in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze drank water contaminated with high levels of radioactive material for more than four years.

Radioactive water flowed to thousands of homes (9/7/03) Radium’s risk not agreed on (9/7/03) Timeline of events (9/7/03) Water’s radium risk downplayed (9/8/03) Questions raised, but answers not forthcoming (9/8/03) The long-term effect of the toxic plume (9/8/03) Companies avoid water cleanup (9/9/03) Conoco disputes accusations in toxic pollution lawsuit (9/9/03) Companies avoid water cleanup (9/9/03) Conoco disputes accusations in toxic pollution lawsuit (9/9/03) Feds urged to revisit plume plan (9/10/03) Golden seeking probe by grand jury (9/10/03) Health official explains radium risks (9/11/03) Lanza wants to allay fears about radium in water (9/11/03) Feds take a look at water case(9/20/03) Utilities Authority faces suit (9/26/03) Pollution puts officials in hot seat (10/1/03) Senator puts radium on radar (10/2/03)

A Superfund hazardous waste site in central Pensacola might be the source of the contamination. People were drinking the contaminated water as recently as September 2000.

A review of more than 50,000 pages of public documents reveals that for at least 54 months, between February 1996 and September 2000, more than 10,000 residents in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze were drinking water polluted with radium 226/228 at levels considered unsafe by the federal government.

All drinking water supplied by the Escambia County Utilities Authority today meets state and federal standards.

Government documents, court records, e-mails and memorandums also show that two former ECUA administrators knew residents were drinking high concentrations of radium 226 and 228, known human carcinogens linked to bone and nasal cancers. Yet the administrators resisted attempts by state regulators to force ECUA to take immediate corrective action, which the administrators said would cost the utility millions of dollars.

Instead, former ECUA Executive Director A.E. Van Van Dever Jr. and Bernie Dahl, former scientific, technical and regulatory administrator, worked to delay notifying the public. They also resisted what they considered overly expensive efforts to remove the radium from the water supply, hiring environmental and health consultants to fight state demands for immediate action.

Dahl estimated it could cost as much as $5 million per well to install equipment to remove the radium, according to a 1997 estimate he sent to Van Dever.

In the end, however, it only cost the utility $515,000 to eliminate contamination from the drinking water by the fall of 2000.

ECUA closed two wells and, after four years of delaying and fighting the state’s demand for corrective action, the utility built a mixing chamber at another well to dilute the high concentrations of radium.

The source of the radioactive material that contaminated the drinking water appears to be the massive underground toxic plume from the old Agrico Chemical Co. phosphate fertilizer plant in central Pensacola.

The radium was discovered only two years after the companies responsible for cleaning up the toxic plume persuaded regulators in 1994 to allow the contaminated groundwater to naturally cleanse itself, thus sparing them the estimated $45 million needed to pump out the groundwater and treat it. Conoco Inc. owns the 35- acre plant site, and Agrico Chemical Co. was the last company to operate the plant.

The companies’ efforts resulted in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approving a controversial cleanup plan that allows the toxic plume to filter out underground over 70 years, before discharging into Bayou Texar. This process is called natural attenuation. The only cost to the companies: monitoring the toxic plume. The companies have spent about $14 million so far, the majority of which was spent to bury contaminated soils in an on-site landfill. This was done to prevent toxins in the soils from continuing to contaminate the groundwater.

The Agrico Chemical Co. phosphate fertilizer plant, shown above in views from its several decades of operation in Pensacola, created a toxic plume that appears to have infiltrated the public water supply.

Photo illustration by Ron Stallcup @PensacolaNewsJournal.com Photos from News Journal files and courtesy of the T.T. Wentworth Museum Historical Collection

But handwritten, undated notes by Dahl, written sometime after April 2000, show he knew fluoride measured in ECUA wells was from Agrico, and that high levels of aluminum and manganese were most likely from Agrico. He also wrote that extreme acid from Agrico could have dislodged the naturally occurring radium 226/228 in underground rocks and released it into the aquifer that supplies Escambia and Santa Rosa counties with their drinking water.

In March 2001, Pensacola lawyer Mike Papantonio filed a $500 million lawsuit against Conoco Inc. and Agrico Chemical Co. for alleged damages caused by pollution from the old Agrico plant.

The lawsuit deals mostly with alleged property value damage caused by the underground plume from the Agrico site, which allegedly has contaminated numerous private irrigation wells and sediments in Bayou Texar.

Conoco has denied the allegations in Papantonio’s lawsuit, which is not expected to go to trial until next year.

But Escambia County Health Department officials concede the radium-tainted water was a health risk, and there is the possibility that some who drank it could develop cancer years from now as a result.

“There is an increased risk, clearly,” said Dr. John Lanza, Health Department director.

Evidence that radium from the Agrico plume has contaminated wells used for public drinking water raises questions about whether the EPA-approved cleanup plan is protective of human health and the environment. It also underscores concerns expressed for years by residents and some elected leaders that leaving the plume in the groundwater for decades puts thousands of people at risk of exposure to the potentially dangerous toxins in the Agrico plume.

ECUA officials insist the water it provides people is safe to drink.

Always has been, said Danny Majors, the utility’s water production manager.

But national health experts said the radium-tainted water put those who drank it at risk not only of cancer but also a damaged immune system that could open them up to a wide array of problems, from asthma to diabetes to childhood developmental problems.

Public documents and court records also show that the water in numerous ECUA wells might have been polluted for decades with radium and other Agrico contaminants.

Groundwater contamination from the Agrico site already had closed one City of Pensacola well by 1958. And federal regulators as early as 1968 warned the city that groundwater pollution from the plant site could be contaminating as many as 10 public wells. The City of Pensacola was responsible for the wells until 1981, when ECUA was established and inherited the city’s water and sewage system.

In August 1997, the Northwest Florida Water Management District, a state agency, told the ECUA board that the Agrico plume had contaminated two of its wells, which provided water to thousands of residents in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze, and appeared to have polluted a third.

Water Management District officials said they left any follow-up work to the utility. ECUA administrators said they dismissed the district’s concerns because fluoride – a key chemical marker in the plume – was not measured at high levels in any of its wells.

ECUA officials remain unconvinced the radium that did pollute their wells was from Agrico.

“I don’t think any of us has seen, or are aware of, any definitive evidence that it comes from Agrico,” said Tim Haag, ECUA’s assistant to the executive director. But he admitted the utility really doesn’t know for sure.

“Unless you committed a lot of resources and money and time to it, I don’t think there’s any definitive way you can totally rule it out,” he said.

Regardless of the source, ECUA did have evidence the radium in its wells was a potentially serious health concern. Beginning in November 1998, ECUA and the Health Department started a broad series of radium tests at wells and, more significantly, of tapwater at numerous homes, businesses, schools and government offices in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

“We wanted to know what the public was actually getting,” said Steve Metzler, an environmental supervisor at the Health Department who helped coordinate the sampling effort.

Finding pollution T
he results were startling.

Example: The water going to Gulf Breeze from ECUA wells was so polluted with radium 226/228 that concentrations measured at the filter entering Gulf Breeze were 129 times the federal limit designed to protect public health. A second sample showed radium concentrations 99 times higher than the standard.

This polluted water, at lower concentrations, was coming out of faucets across Gulf Breeze and Pensacola. Samples of tapwater taken by ECUA and the Health Department found concentrations of radium at numerous sites to be nearly twice the federal threshold for public health.

They revealed many potential victims:

Schoolchildren attending Cordova Park Elementary School.

Travelers passing through Pensacola Regional Airport.

Visitors to the Welcome Center at the foot of the Pensacola Bay Bridge.

Employees at the Santa Rosa Island Authority offices at Pensacola Beach.

And residents in numerous homes throughout Pensacola and Gulf Breeze.

No immediate action was taken in response to these sample results – not by ECUA, not by the Health Department and not by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which regulates the utility but was largely unsuccessful in forcing it to protect the public water supply from radium.

After reviewing the tapwater results, DEP wanted ECUA to provide an alternate source of drinking water to customers who received their water from the contaminated wells.

Lanza and the Health Department, however, did not support such a drastic – and expensive – step because they did not consider the situation an “imminent health threat.”

“My opinion would be, yeah, there’s risk, but when you put it into perspective to other risks like sunbathing, driving your car, flying in a plane, it’s a minimal risk,” Lanza said.

But the public was never told of the tapwater sample results. Local residents assumed the risk of drinking the radium-tainted water without knowing about it.

Waiting for changes
DEP eventually fined the utility in February 2000 for the radium violations and failure to properly notify the public. But by that time, thousands in the community had been drinking water contaminated with high concentrations of radium for more than four years.

The utility’s biggest argument against taking action was its claim that federal rules regarding radium pollution in drinking water were about to change, and that the changes would allow concentrations of radium well above the current federal threshold.

Even though ECUA could not meet the federal standard, officials argued they shouldn’t have to spend millions of dollars to comply with a standard they insisted was soon going to change. They also didn’t want to mail out a public notice to customers informing them of the contamination, complaining to state regulators that doing so “wastes ratepayers’ monies, which could otherwise be better spent on improvements to our water system.”

EPA had announced in July 1991 that it was reviewing the radium rules to determine whether the maximum level allowed in drinking water should be increased.

The agency said it might raise the level to eight times the current standard. But by 1996, EPA officials were telling public utilities and trade groups that they would not change the radium standard because doing so would endanger human health.

What’s more, Van Hoofnagle, administrator of DEP’s Drinking Water Section in Tallahassee, told Van Dever, Dahl and other ECUA officials during a meeting in September 1998 that EPA had informed the state the radium standard would not change, records show.

“Their consultants were saying the standard was going to change, and we kept saying, ‘No, it’s not,’ ” Hoofnagle said recently.

Even if ECUA did not know this, the federal standards had been in place – and enforceable – since July 1976, when drinking water standards for radium were established.

“Legally speaking, people should have already been in compliance, and it should not have even been an issue,” said David Huber, a radium expert in EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. Public utilities that continued to hold onto the belief that the radium regulations were going to change “were in denial,” he said.

After nearly a decade of research, EPA in April 2000 formally announced it would not alter the standards. Among the reasons: “New data and models suggest that radionuclides are much riskier than thought in 1991.” In addition, the federal agency announced it would establish a new maximum contaminant level goal of zero for radionuclides in drinking water.

Van Dever, who was fired by the ECUA board in March 2002, declined to discuss specific actions his administration took to address the issue, but he insisted the utility never provided water to its customers that was unsafe to drink. Dahl, who retired in January, declined to comment.

ECUA stresses safety
ECUA was finally forced in June 1998 to begin notifying the public of the high radium levels in its No. 9 well – first discovered more than two years earlier.

The notice, published in the Pensacola News Journal, provided few specific details about the No. 9 well. Instead, it offered a general description of radium, noting that it is a “naturally occurring radioactive metal,” and that federal and state environmental regulators consider drinking water with radium a “health concern at certain levels of exposure.”

But under the heading “Additional Consumer Information Relative to Radionuclides,” ECUA argued that the federal standard for radium was about to change, and that when it did, the maximum allowable concentration of radium in drinking water would be many times the current threshold.

“Therefore, although the ECUA well identified in the above notice is technically out of compliance … there should be little reason for concern,” the notice stated.

That conclusion differs sharply with views held by federal and state regulators, as well as a wealth of health studies and research. At concentrations above the federal radium standard, EPA says the water should be considered dangerous.

“You don’t want to drink water with any level of radium in it,” said Neal Nelson, a pharmacologist in EPA’s Office of Radiation and Indoor Air.

Agrico plume’s threat
There’s evidence some Pensacola residents might have been drinking radium-tainted water for decades.

In 1958, groundwater pollution from the fertilizer plant, which was owned at the time by American Agricultural Chemical Co., forced the City of Pensacola to close its 12th Avenue well. Regulators found high fluoride, sulfates and nitrates. Many of those same contaminants, in addition to aluminum and manganese, began to show up in other city wells by the late 1960s.

The U.S. Geological Survey warned the city in June 1968 that results of testing revealed as many as 10 wells were contaminated with various pollutants linked to the Agrico plume. High nitrate concentrations were found in wells south of the plant, in the well at F & Scott streets, and the No. 6, No. 8 and East wells.

“It is apparent that the groundwater is being contaminated and that the contamination began many years ago,” Donald Goolsby, assistant chief of the Geological Survey’s District Laboratory, wrote in a letter to the city’s Water Division.

That groundwater contamination continued to move south, toward other ECUA wells.

In September 1972, the Geological Survey sampled water in the long-abandoned 12th Avenue well and found that levels of numerous Agrico pollutants, including fluoride, were “substantially higher” than in 1958, when the city had to close the well.

The Geological Survey at the time also reviewed sample results from wells within a two-mile radius of the Agrico plant that had been conducted between 1952 and 1972. The federal agency noted that tapwater samples at two locations, as well as samples of the 12th Avenue well, contained fluoride in excess of health standards. In addition, tap samples at a drive-in movie theater as early as 1952 had sulfate greatly in excess of health standards. In addition to radium, all of these contaminants are in the Agrico plume.

The Geological Survey’s 1972 report provides a map with a huge shaded area that includes roughly half of Pensacola. “If it is assumed that these relatively high concentrations are caused by contamination from the Agrico plant, the shaded area can be regarded as the area affected,” the report said. This huge area includes all of central Pensacola, and encompasses the East well, F & Scott streets well, and the No. 6, No. 8 and No. 9 public drinking water wells.

The report noted that most of the water in the area met U.S. Public Health Service standards, but that concentrations of pollution were increasing.

The Geological Survey report recommended that wells in the shaded area be “periodically” tested for fluoride. There’s no evidence in the public record that this was ever done.

Cleanup ‘negotiated away’
Finally, on Oct. 4, 1989, nearly 15 years after Agrico closed the plant, EPA declared the location a Superfund hazardous waste site. This should have been the time when all this pollution, and the threat to drinking water wells, began to be cleaned up for good.

It wasn’t.

The companies that created the plume were able to win a cleanup plan from EPA that “negotiated away” requirements to pump out the toxic plume, wrote Don Squyres, a DuPont official, in a February 1996 e-mail. This resulted, Squyres wrote, in cleanup costs that were only “a fraction of what was predicted.”

The two principal companies are Agrico Chemical Co., the last operator of the plant, and Conoco Inc., the current owner of the 35- acre site. But it also includes three other companies that share liability: DuPont, The Williams Cos. and Freeport-McMoRan Inc.

Avoiding cleaning the plume saved Conoco, Agrico Chemical Co. and the other companies $45 million, according to Conoco’s records. To date, they have spent about $14 million on the cleanup, mainly to contain polluted soil on-site and cap it.

In the last five years alone, ECUA has closed two wells – No. 9 and East – because of radium pollution, and the No. 8 well, in part, because of radium. All these wells are near Agrico and in the path of the known plume.

And, despite protesting any cleanup action, ECUA eventually spent $515,000 to build a mixing chamber to dilute high concentrations of radium in the Hagler well with clean water from two other wells.

Conoco denies ‘wrongdoing’
Conoco, through its attorneys, denied “any allegations of impropriety or wrongdoing.”

The Williams Cos. and Freeport-McMoRan declined to comment for this story. DuPont referred questions to Conoco’s press office. “I can’t speak on behalf of DuPont,” said Conoco spokesman Carlton Adams.

The goal of the companies and their consultants, as revealed by thousands of pages of public records, was to design studies and conduct computer modeling to achieve what the companies called a “limited action” alternative. This is the bureaucratic term given to the cleanup alternative of allowing the pollutants to naturally filter out underground.

“No pump and treat,” wrote Bruce Youtsey, a Conoco consultant, echoing the goal of the companies and their consulting firms.

There are many other examples:

On the cleanup of the plume: “I have all members of the project team working toward a no-action alternative for groundwater remediation.” – Andrew Miller with Geraghty and Miller Inc., a consulting firm, in a Jan. 25, 1991, letter.

On determining the size of the toxic plume: “Our goal is to see if we can establish beyond question limits of the plume that are smaller than EPA’s.” – Michael McDonald, a consultant at McDonald Morrissey Associates Inc., in a Jan. 27, 1992, memorandum to Conoco officials.

On downplaying the importance of polluting the aquifer: The local community’s drinking water needs are satisfied by upgradient wells in the Sand-and-Gravel Aquifer. “There are ‘reasonable available sources’ of potable water in the north.” – Cynthia Green, a DuPont program manager, in a Feb. 10, 1993, memorandum.

In one example of this strategy in action, company officials edited the results of a critical 1993 study to remove evidence that high fluoride content found in Bayou Texar sediments was attributable to the Agrico plant – clear evidence that the plume was already impacting the bayou 10 years ago.

The Pensacola News Journal shared these and other documents with Patsy Goldberg, the EPA remedial project manager who oversaw the cleanup investigation at the site.

“I’m stunned,” she said. “It makes me wonder: Was I hoodwinked?”

Even before the Bayou Texar study was conducted, the companies persuaded the EPA to approve a scaled-down version.

“It appears we successfully negotiated a much reduced scope for the Bayou work,” wrote Stephanie Gordinier, senior environmental engineer at The Williams Cos. Instead of testing sediments for 32 chemical compounds in the bayou, tests had to be conducted for only four compounds, she explained. And instead of collecting 80 samples, only 20 had to be collected.

“These changes should cut our costs by at least two-thirds,” she wrote.

The consultants and engineers called this cost-cutting “Value Engineering,” records show. The savings to Conoco and the other companies was tremendous: $45 million by eliminating the groundwater cleanup, according to Conoco’s own documents.

Today, the toxic groundwater plume sits underneath the city, untouched, where it could continue threatening public water supplies for decades

SPECIAL REPORT

Reports that radioactive material contaminated the drinking water in Pensacola surfaced
in the local media 17 months ago. Public documents now reveal that for at least
54 months, between February 1996 and September 2000, more than 10,000 residents
in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze were drinking water considered unsafe by the federal
government. Two former Escambia County Utilities Authority administrators knew about
the contamination and delayed notifying the public. ECUA officials also resisted
efforts to take immediate action to remove the contamination from the drinking water.
This series looks at the source of the contamination, why it took so long to eliminate
it and the impact on the community. The series also examines whether the EPA-approved
plan to clean up the old Agrico Chemical Co. fertilizer plant adequately protects
people and the underground aquifer that services the Pensacola Bay Area. Follow
the situation by clicking on the drop-down menu below. Click on the image above
for a detailed map of the toxic plume considered to be the source of the contamination.