The EPA’s Record of Decision

The Stephen Foster neighborhood in northwest Gainesville is no ordinary stretch of suburbia. Just before night falls, sunlight passes through a canopy of leaves, illuminating the walls of not-so-perfectly aligned houses. Backyards reveal forests and creeks, invisible to those who drive by on the street.

There’s a sense of community here, rather than socially constructed conformity. The residents can’t be defined by any specific age, race, lifestyle or socioeconomic class. One thing they all have in common is that they’re directly affected by a dirty secret, which publicly emerges every decade or so to make local headlines.

At the core of the neighborhood, there’s a 90-acre toxic wasteland, concealed by bushes and barbed-wire fences, known as the Cabot/Koppers Superfund site. “Superfund site” is a legal term used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to define areas polluted so severely that they pose an immediate threat to human health and local ecosystems.

Koppers Inc. operated a wood treatment facility in Gainesville since 1916, releasing a wide range of toxins into Gainesville’s air, water and soil. They sold their property in 1988 to Beazer East, a private developer that follows Koppers around the country, absorbing environmental liabilities and allowing them to operate behind closed doors. The area was granted Superfund status 28 years ago, but Koppers continued its operations until 2009.

Due to conflicts of interest between the EPA, Beazer East and neighborhood residents, the site has not been cleaned up yet. No one fully agrees on the extent of the pollution or what should be done about it. The EPA finally released its Record of Decision, which details their plans to clean the site, on Feb. 2.

Will the EPA’s Record of Decision adequately address the needs of the community? Is their plan enough to heal the damage, grief and fear caused by almost a century of highly toxic pollution, or are they trying to cut corners and save money?

Local toxicology experts, such as Joe Prager and Patricia Cline, have expressed skepticism. They’ll surely analyze the Record of Decision—all 703 pages of it—and look for answers between the lines. Public officials and environmental engineers are doing the same.

Prager contends the EPA has a “cozy relationship with industry as a rule.” The tax on corporate polluters that supplied the EPA’s “Superfund” was eliminated by Congress in 1995. Now, the EPA has no choice but to rely on the cooperation of responsible parties like Beazer East.

Prager served on the Alachua County Environmental Advisory Board from 2005 to 2008. His struggle with chemical treatment companies is a personal one. His wife was unknowingly exposed during her pregnancy to wood products treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA). Soon after, their daughter was born with a cleft lip and a cleft palette.

Prager now spends his time researching the effects of industrial toxins and sifting through public documents. He works with Cline, the Stephen Foster neighborhood’s technical advisor, to hold politicians and company representatives accountable for their actions.

Cline said on Feb. 3 that she wasn’t ready to make any official comments on the Record of Decision. Based on what she’s seen so far, she’s glad the EPA is planning to remedy off-site soil contamination in accordance with state residential standards, which are more strict than national standards, despite resistance from Beazer East.

This may be a source of relief for Gainesville residents, especially families living near the site, who are often scared to let their kids play outside. What this means for residents is that Beazer East will hire contractors to remove two feet of contaminated soil from their yards via heavy machinery and replace it with clean fill. Residents must agree to let the contractors onto their property.

Prager and other critics claim the Record of Decision doesn’t account for the concentration of dioxins inside people’s houses, which may build up over time and surpass the levels outside. It certainly doesn’t account for bioaccumulation, the process in which dioxins bind to fatty tissue and accumulate in the human body.

Dioxin—one of the major pollutants released by Koppers—has historically been used in chemical weapons like Agent Orange. According to the World Health Organization, chronic exposure can lead to reproductive problems, immune damage and cancer.

In January 2010, environmental justice attorneys hired a private consulting firm to sample fine dust particles from nine random houses within a two-mile radius of the Superfund site, revealing an average indoor dioxin concentration of 400 parts per trillion—over 50 times what the state considers to be safe for soil outdoors.

Mary Ann Jones lives in one of those houses with her extended family, which includes three grandchildren. The youngest ones—Aaron, 3, and Carlos, 6—play outside each day without understanding the situation. She tells them to wash their hands after playing outside, and if they drop something on the ground, she tells them not to pick it up.

The Jones family’s house, next door to the Superfund site, had an indoor dioxin concentration of 1200 parts per trillion—that’s 150 times higher than Florida’s outdoor residential standard. Mary Ann was not warned of the pollution when she bought her property. She said she likes to garden, but now her plants are dead because she’s scared to touch them. For the Jones family, moving away is not an option—they spent all their money on the house, and now their property is worthless.

“The more I think about it, the angrier I get,” Mary Ann said months ago. “You can’t put a price on my life or my family. Why would you try to cover up something that you know is so deadly? Why do you think money is more important than the lives of my grandkids?”

Prager suggests relocation may be the safest solution for residents living near the site. Relocation is not considered in the EPA’s Record of Decision, but they’ve done it before. In 1996, the EPA relocated 358 families in Pensacola, home to the notorious Escambia Superfund site. The relocation was a result of additional soil testing, which only occurred due to overwhelming pressure from Citizens Against Toxic Exposure (CATE), a group similar to Protect Gainesville’s Citizens.

The relocated families had been living under the shadow of what they referred to as “Mount Dioxin.” The EPA had decided to remedy the site by gathering an estimated 344,520 tons of contaminated soil and compressing it into 40 acres, resulting in a mound that was 60 feet tall. They protected the mound with a plastic seal, which was meant to last for ten years.

It only took a few years before wind and rain caused damage to the seal. Seeds got in the soil and trees began to emerge, wearing and tearing it further. Contaminated soil escaped and spread through the neighborhood. The story of Escambia is neatly spelled out in the second chapter of Sacrifice Zones, a work of investigative journalism by Steve Lerner.

The EPA’s Record of Decision calls for a similar approach in Gainesville, involving a mound of toxic soil, vertical walls and an engineered cap. Prager saw the parallelism in their proposed plan and sent an editorial to the Gainesville Sun, warning residents that Gainesville may soon be home to a new Mount Dioxin.

In their Record of Decision, the EPA analyzed Prager’s assertions and dismissed them. According to the ROD, “Many of the points raised by the commenter [Prager] related to the Escambia site are factually inaccurate. The HDPE temporary cover alluded to in the comment performed as expected and was replaced by an engineered cap.”

According to Sacrifice Zones, “Residents were first told the plastic cover would last for five years but the EPA subsequently claimed it had a ten-year lifespan. In 1996, the contractor who installed the cover reported to the EPA that it was damaged and had a two-foot hole and a two-foot tear in it along with other smaller holes.”

In a phone call, Francine Ishmael, executive director of CATE, directly testified: “It was a plastic tarp that they put on a mound of dirt. They said it would last for 10 years. It did not.”

In Gainesville, the EPA’s Record of Decision calls for an engineered cap, which they claim will have “an indefinite life expectancy with minimal maintenance.” Its dimensions and design are yet to be determined. Prager hopes, as many Gainesville residents do, that the EPA won’t repeat its mistakes in Gainesville.

Cline said the Record of Decision doesn’t explicitly spell out everything. It’s the role of concerned citizens, she says, to constantly make sure the EPA is up-to-date on relevant data and community input that they might otherwise overlook.

She expressed concern that the Record of Decision doesn’t adequately address the issue of contaminants leaching downward from the soil into the groundwater. There are many polluted areas, she said, where the EPA intends to scrape up contaminated soil and replace it without conducting further investigations on what’s underneath.

The true extent of pollution from Koppers may never be fully defined. It’s underground and above ground. It’s in the air, soil, groundwater, creeks and forests. Creosote threatens to permanently damage the Floridan aquifer. Dioxins are building up in yards and houses. The Stephen Foster Neighborhood Protection Group claims that animals, pets and even people have died as a result of Koppers.

Scott Miller of the EPA dismissed their claims as “anecdotal.” The Florida Health Department concluded that yards in the Stephen Foster neighborhood were safe but warned residents not to let their kids play in a narrow easement bordering Koppers.

Any officer of Protect Gainesville’s Citizens, an organization that aims to spread awareness, would stress the idea that the Superfund process requires relentless grassroots involvement. Otherwise, residents living in the shadow of Superfund sites are likely to be overlooked.

Update (2/18): On Feb. 18, the Gainesville City Commission held a special meeting to publicly analyze the EPA’s Record of Decision. “We didn’t get everything we wanted,” said Chris Bird, Director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department. “We want to target factors we can still influence.”

Update (5/1): For photos and personal testimony from troubled residents living directly along the fence of the Superfund site, check out A Haunting Past: Fenced In.