Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Superfund Site Spotlight: Jacksonville

Congress enacted CERCLA, also known as Superfund, in 1980 to address releases or threatened releases of hazardous chemicals into the environment. The act required those parties responsible for the polluted sites to fund the cleanup efforts. The federal government also manages a trust fund, funded by a tax on chemical and petroleum industries, to finance the cleanup of those hazardous and abandoned sites where the responsible parties cannot be identified. Yet the Superfund trust fund is far too limited to fund the cleanup of no more than a handful of the 1,150 sites. CERCLA thus established a National Priorities List (NPL) that identifies and prioritizes the sites needing long-term remedial action to permanently or significantly reduce the threat of hazardous chemical releases.

Here in Florida, we are home to 55 Superfund sites on the NPL. In this Superfund Spotlight, I will examine three NPL sites in Jacksonville: the Kerr-McGee chemical plant, the Fairfax Street Wood Treatment factory, and Cecil Field. The Kerr-McGee site in Jacksonville was once home to a fertilizer factory. The factory created pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals from the 1890s until 1978. Site tests have indicated the presence of benzene, DDT, toxaphene, arsenic, lead, and other toxins. The estimated cost of the site clean-up hovers around $18.6 million. The site’s last owner, Tronox (a spin-off company from Kerr-McGee), filed for bankruptcy in 2009 but has promised to pay at least $4.2 million of those costs as part of a broader settlement with the EPA involving a number of old, polluted Kerr-McGee sites. Although there are no reported injuries from this site, a 2003 study by the FL Department of Health indicated that just living on the property for a few weeks could result in significant injuries. The planned cleanup efforts are of little reprieve for the former factory workers, though. Although the state has never sanctioned a study into the health of these workers, many of them reported health problems by the time they either quit or retired.

Squished behind two elementary schools, the Fairfax Street Wood Treatment factory was added to the NPL this past year. In 2011, the EPA enacted an emergency clean-up plan to remove the most hazardous chemicals given the site’s proximity to those schools. Moreover, as part of this emergency clean-up, the EPA removed soil and water contamination from one of the neighboring elementary school playgrounds. From 1980 to 2010, the factory pressure-treated utility poles, pilings, and other lumber products, leading to water and sediment contamination of tow known carcinogens: copper and arsenic. But, because the previous site’s owner has also gone bankrupt, the EPA will have to finance the long-term cleanup costs with already strained Superfund trust funding.

Cecil Field once stood tall in western Jacksonville as a navy-designated Master Jet Base from the 1950s until the end of the 20th century. During that period, Cecil Field housed numerous fighter jet and aircraft squadrons that would see involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, and Gulf War. Incident to this now mostly defunct military presence, Cecil Field experienced pollution from a multitude of hazardous materials including solvents, corrosives, pesticides, paints, and petroleum products. Clean-up efforts of the fifteen identified contaminated areas at Cecil Field have also uncovered high concentrations of lead and even live, unexploded weapons buried in the earth. Cleanup efforts are still ongoing and have succeeded in removing immediate threats to human exposure. Future cleanup efforts will address the remaining groundwater pollution. Although the naval presence at Cecil Field has diminished significantly from its heyday in the latter half of the 20th century, some residents voice concerns about potential new pollution of the 17,000 acre site with the prospect of additional aircraft and hangars on the horizon.

These site cleanups are critical for improving the quality of life and the environment in northeast Florida. But with many of the original polluting parties now defunct or bankrupt, the burden of restoration efforts must fall on the EPA and its limited funding. And as always, the challenge of balancing environmental protection with industry growth looms large in the future economic development of the city.

-Stephen Holmgren, Legal Extern