ATLANTA – During the 34 years it processed phosphate ore, more than 2,400 people worked at the Stauffer Chemical Co. plant north of Tarpon Springs.
Most toiled in hot, dusty conditions described as torture. Claims that exposure to toxic chemicals was harming workers began as soon as the plant opened in 1947.
“When the furnace was tapped, it was said that hell existed on Earth,” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Ombudsman Ronnie Wilson said Thursday. “Numerous eyewitnesses have stated that birds flying over the facility nose-dived to their death if they happened to be flying over the facility when the furnace was tapped. One can only imagine what the employees’ dose was at this point.”
But more than two decades after the plant closed in 1981, questions about workers’ health are largely unresolved.
Inside the ballroom of an Atlanta hotel Thursday, Wilson and other federal officials heard from eight medical and scientific experts about a preliminary public health assessment of the Stauffer Superfund site.
Responding to residents’ complaints, Wilson issued a report in late 2000 stating the agency’s 1993 health assessment was incomplete.
The experts said they were concerned about the lack of data on workers’ exposure to chemicals and substances such as asbestos, chromium, nickel, quartz, silica, sulfur dioxide, lead and dust.
Agency officials have been unable to locate a quarter of the former workers, and there are information gaps about hundreds who have died.
The panel appeared split on proceeding with studies looking at the cause of death or studies examining disease among the living.
William Beckett of the University of Rochester School of Medicine said it might be difficult to determine the risk of disease because study participation might not include all workers.
The agency issued a 174-page preliminary assessment in March that said worker exposure at Stauffer “could cause an increased risk of cancer or other adverse health effects.” But the report said the conclusions were based on limited data for the plant’s last nine years of operation.
The final report is expected by year’s end and likely will include a recommendation on whether to proceed with worker studies, officials said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing a second round of reports on site cleanup. The reports were ordered following questions about conclusions for containing or removing toxic waste.
EPA officials have scheduled a meeting for 5 p.m. Aug. 13 at the Tarpon Springs Public Library to discuss the next step with residents.
The Stauffer discussion continues as pollution from the Coronet Industries phosphate plant in Plant City has prompted a federally mandated public health assessment. Investigators also are probing allegations Coronet workers were ordered to dump hazardous waste and deceive government inspectors.
Experts at Thursday’s meeting said they were most concerned about the risk of lung cancer and respiratory problems in Stauffer workers. The panel didn’t consider health effects on people living near the plant. Nor was it asked about studying former students of Gulfside Elementary School, which opened across Anclote Boulevard four years before the plant closed.
“If they go through with these health evaluations for the former workers and find something, then they can’t ignore those other groups,” Tarpon Springs activist Chuck Lehr said.
Alan Bender of the Minnesota Department of Health warned about the psychological effect of continued studies on former workers: “We have to be careful about how aggressively we cast things.”
Stauffer Management Co. general counsel Luke Mette said it was premature for the experts to offer advice because medical and scientific reports from Stauffer weren’t made available to them.
Wilson, the ombudsman, said the federal agency “is the only hope” for former workers to get questions answered.
“I’m not saying they were harmed,” he said. “Rather, I’m saying let’s find out.”
* Reporter Mark Holan can be reached at (727) 815-1082.