The long-term effect of the toxic plume
Scott Streater @PensacolaNewsJournal.com T
he Agrico Chemical Co. phosphate fertilizer plant is a grim reminder of the region’s polluted past and how it still affects us today.
For nearly 100 years, beginning in 1889, the Agrico plant saturated soils and groundwater in the heart of Pensacola with a potentially dangerous mixture of toxic chemicals such as arsenic, fluoride and lead.
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The first sign of trouble started in the late 1950s, when a City of Pensacola water well began to measure high concentrations of contaminants linked to the Agrico site. The city was forced in 1958 to close its 12th Avenue well because of contamination from the plant site.
In 1975, Agrico closed the plant. The federal Environmental Protection Agency declared Agrico a Superfund site in 1989.
In February 1995, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry classified the 35-acre plant site a public health hazard. The agency found liver, kidney and lung cancers were high within two ZIP codes around the old fertilizer plant. The suspected cause: arsenic, which was present at high enough levels at the site to increase the risk of all three cancers, as well as skin and bladder cancer.
Lead in the Agrico site soil “may have caused decreased intelligence scores, slow growth and hearing impairment in young children who trespassed on the site,” according to the agency.
Conoco Inc., which owns the property, completed cleanup of the site in 1997. Contaminated soils were dug up and buried in a lined landfill at the plant site, and a thick clay cap has been placed over it to prevent rainwater from carrying more pollutants to the underground aquifer. The long-term health effects of all this pollution are the subject of ongoing study.
The Escambia County Health Department for the past few years has operated a clinic, funded by the Legislature, that has tracked down thousands of current and former residents near Agrico and the nearby Escambia Treating Co.
Superfund site. The residents are screened for health problems associated with exposure to Agrico/Escambia Treating pollutants.
In addition, thanks to a multimillion-dollar, congressionally funded environmental health study, the Health Department is leading an effort to determine how many of these residents have toxic chemicals in their bloodstream that still may be making them sick.
But the pollution is not limited to the site, which is off Fairfield Drive west of Interstate 110.
A massive underground plume of toxic chemicals has migrated into Bayou Texar, contaminating some private irrigation wells in its path and sediments in the bayou. That pollution is the focus of a $500 million lawsuit by Pensacola lawyer Mike Papantonio, who is suing Conoco and Agrico. Papantonio and a team of lawyers claim the pollution damaged property values and endangered the health of thousands of people. They also claim Conoco and Agrico misled federal regulators into approving a plume cleanup plan that will leave the polluted groundwater in the aquifer where the region gets all its drinking water.