PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — State, federal and local agencies failed to do all they could to prevent and remove pollution that has contaminated more than half of Escambia County’s public water wells, a grand jury said in a report Tuesday.
The panel, however, issued no indictments. State Attorney Curtis Golden said the statute of limitations has expired for former utility officials who came in for much of the grand jury’s criticism.
The report, instead, recommends local and state officials establish a plan to protect Escambia’s ground water, drawn from a shallow aquifer and easily contaminated. It should recognize certain industries and other land uses are incompatible, the panel wrote.
“The plan must provide for future supply by setting aside land for new wells before the remaining last best suited for well fields is developed for other inconsistent uses,” the report concluded.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the report will give him ammunition to seek federal money for the final two years of a five-year study, endorsed by the grand jury, to determine if Escambia’s Superfund sites have caused death or health problems.
“Somebody is trying to kill those appropriations every year,” Nelson said, but he was unsure of where the opposition is coming from.
The grand jury investigation sought by Golden named industry as the main pollution source, including six federally designated Superfund sites contaminated with dioxin, lead, fluoride and other toxins.
Dry cleaning solvents, fuels leaked from storage tanks and other toxins from abandoned landfills also have contributed to pollution. The source of radium found in Escambia’s drinking water during the 1990s has not been pinpointed.
The grand jury found that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Escambia County Utilities Authority (ECUA) failed to adequately monitor and clean ground water, notify the public of problems and prevent contamination.
The report blamed ECUA staffers for failing to understand the seriousness of radium contamination and then trying to cover it up. Wells have since been closed or filters have been installed.
The ECUA issued a statement saying it is committed to maintaining the safety of drinking water, cannot change what took place under an earlier administration and promised to use the grand jury’s report “to make positive changes wherever such changes are necessary.”
EPA spokesman Carl Terry said it would be premature to comment because the agency had not yet received the report. DEP did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The grand jury found ConocoPhillips, owner of one Superfund site, delayed efforts to determine the extent of pollution and persuaded regulators to let it go untreated to avoid that expense.
ConocoPhillips spokesman Jeff Callendar said officials at the Houston-based company had not yet seen the report and declined immediate comment.
The company has agreed to a $70 million preliminary settlement with residents who claim pollution has devalued their property and may have caused health problems.