By Henry Taksier
Above: Inside the 90-acre facility operated by Koppers Inc. before its operations were shut down. Photo by Robert Pearce, former president of the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Association.
How Gainesville Faces Decades of Toxic Pollution
Tia Ma, a local massage therapist, no longer feels comfortable treating clients at her house, eating herbs from her organic garden or letting her cat roll around in the soil. When she moved into her home at 708 NW 31st Ave. two years ago, she didn’t realize the dangerous consequences of living there.
“I’ve noticed more and more animals with tumors in this neighborhood,” she said. “To hear that three doors down the street, people are dying of cancer and houses are going out for sale – my heart has been broken.”
Slowly, Ma learned about a nearby place called the Cabot/Koppers Superfund Site.
For 93 years, Koppers Inc. operated a 90-acre industrial facility at 200 NW 23rd Ave. The area is now ranked as one of the nation’s top-100 polluted sites. In 1983, it was declared by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a Superfund site – a place so heavily polluted with toxic waste that it poses a threat to human health and the environment.
For decades, Koppers released industrial toxins into Gainesville’s air, water and soil, including arsenic, hexavalent chromium, creosote and dioxins. Combined, these chemicals can cause cancer, rare diseases, changes in DNA, and birth defects.
There’s a 500-foot buffer around the site, including ABC Liquor, Ward’s Supermarket, the Salvation Army, a daycare center and dozens of homes, which the City of Gainesville designated an “area of special environmental concern” in 2005.
Cheryl Krauth is an officer of Protect Gainesville Citizens Inc., an organization dedicated to spreading awareness of the issue. She said the EPA is currently doing too little too slowly to help the residents who live near the site.
“We know there are homes along the border of the site – roughly 20 of them – who received letters from the [Alachua County] health department saying, ‘Don’t allow your children to play in the dirt; don’t grow gardens in your yard; and stop using your wells,’” she said.
The letters also included other warnings, such as, “Do not get soil in your mouth, bathe upon reentering the house, and keep a separate set of ‘play clothes.’”
Cindy Harrington, a resident of the Stephen Foster Neighborhood, has been working with Protect Gainesville Citizens for years to help her neighbors. Nonetheless, she secretly hoped her own home would be safe, as it was located across Northwest Sixth Street, outside the buffer area. Slightly over a month ago, a private environmental consulting firm tested nine homes, including hers, revealing evidence of high dioxin levels.
“If you feel your health is at risk and you want to leave, nobody wants to buy your house,” Krauth said. “So there are lots of residents that feel trapped.”
Joe Prager, founder of a local organization called Ban CCA, has personally experienced the damaging effects of industrial toxins. His daughter was born with a cleft lip and a cleft pallet despite his wife’s efforts to stay perfectly healthy during her pregnancy. He later learned that the defects stemmed from his wife’s exposure to CCA-treated wood products, which contain a dangerous mixture of copper, arsenic and hexavalent chromium.
Prager’s personal tragedy led him to years of research. From 2005 to 2008, Prager served on the Alachua County Environmental Protection Advisory Committee and decided to investigate Koppers.
He asked for reports from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and found that the water run-off from Koppers contained arsenic levels that were eight times higher than what was acceptable near a residential area. Copper levels were 18 times higher. There was one patch of land in which the dioxin levels were 24,377 times higher than the accepted residential standard.
“There have been reports of cancer clusters, large numbers of pet deaths from cancer, [and] more than one case of multiple sclerosis nearby,” Prager said.
In 1988, Koppers sold their property to Beazer East, a private developer that is currently responsible for working with the EPA to clean up and redevelop the area. Despite the property’s Superfund status, Koppers still operated the lumber-treatment facility and continued their toxic operations until 2009. That’s when Koppers decided to leave Gainesville, after all the investigations and bad publicity. Now that the operations are closed, the EPA has a chance to finally do its job.
“The EPA has done little or nothing for 26 years,” Prager said. “They appear to have a cozy relationship with industry as a rule.”
If the EPA doesn’t move faster, there could be permanent consequences. There are spots on the Superfund site where creosote oils – highly carcinogenic toxins – have leached through layers of rock and soil toward Florida’s aquifer system 200 feet below. From there, the pollutants could potentially flow north into the Murphree Wellfield, where Gainesville Regional Utilities draws the water supply for Gainesville and other surrounding communities.
“I’ve called this site the greatest environmental issue for Alachua County, and I still think that’s true,” Prager said. “Our drinking water is at stake here.”
How can we, as a community, hold Beazer and the EPA accountable? Groups like the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Association, Ban CCA, Protect Gainesville Citizens and Gainesville United Neighborhoods have been working hard to spread awareness of the issue and encourage community activism.
“The EPA says they’ve done almost 10 years of studies,” said Ma, who is now involved with Protect Gainesville Citizens. “We have no idea what those studies are. I want a compilation of all the tests that have been done so we can make decisions together. I don’t want to create bad guys. I just want honesty.”
Local activists are calling out to concerned residents, including UF students and professors, to educate themselves on the issue and to contribute whatever skills they might have. This includes a call for artists, photographers, journalists, urban planners, engineers and just about anyone else.
“I think the city of Gainesville and UF can really come together with some creative ideas,” Ma said. “I think it can be an amazing win-win. We should just admit that we’ve fucked up. And we can utilize the resources we have in this town. We can do our best to clean it up and do so publicly and teach others how to do it so this never happens again. It’s not okay to just sit back and let the company decide how to make money on their 90 acres after they clean it up.”
Ma’s lease on the house will expire in July. She plans to permanently leave before then. Ma is a healer, and her beliefs include leaving places in a better condition than how she found them. Her goal is to fill the entire meadow around her house with ferns and sunflowers, known for their ability to heal the earth by absorbing industrial toxins.
Update: A lot has happened since this story was written. New tests have been done and the results are disconcerting, to say the least. For testimony from a troubled family living next door to the site, as well as responses from GRU, Beazer, the EPA, and GDEP, check out A Haunting Past, Pt. 2.