PLANT CITY – Things have been pretty quiet at Coronet Industries since the company ceased making a chicken feed supplement nearly a year ago.
But the shuttered phosphate processing plant was fairly bustling last month when the excavator, the dump truck and the industrial-sized trash bin appeared near Pond 6.
The scooping of soil commenced on the afternoon of Jan. 24, according to an affidavit by neighbor Tom Brewer. At sundown, he said, a floodlight was brought out, and the digging and excavating continued until about 9:30 p.m.
Coronet officials call it research and development.
Attorneys for people who believe contamination from the plant damaged their health call it destruction of evidence.
Today a judge will hear arguments from both sides and is expected to decide whether to lift an injunction preventing Coronet from excavating soil, discharging wastewater or to “otherwise remove, destroy, damage or dispose of any discoverable evidence” from the 950-acre plant site.
Circuit Judge Vivian Maye granted the emergency injunction Jan. 27 based on information in affidavits and motions submitted by McCurdy & McCurdy LLP, a Texas law firm representing nearly 1,000 residents and former Coronet employees.
The motion accuses Coronet of trying to get rid of contaminated soil and wastewater before the plaintiffs’ experts can conduct tests on it.
It details the lawyers’ fruitless efforts since November to gain access to the property.
“Demonstrating the presence of contaminants … is required by Plaintiffs to effectively prosecute their case,” it said.
According to a recent Environmental Protection Agency report, Coronet waste contains arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, fluoride, radium and other toxins.
Some of those were discovered in private wells of nearby residents during a two-year investigation into health complaints in the Coronet area.
State and federal agencies found no link between plant and illnesses but did conclude some of the contamination came from Coronet – most likely Pond 6.
According to an affidavit signed by Nathaniel McGriff, another witness produced by the Texas law firm, “I have personal knowledge of hazardous waste previously being buried in that pond.”
McGriff said he saw a truck containing lime – used to neutralize many of the contaminants – parked along Cason Road near the excavator.
Coronet spokesman Tom Stewart says that no soil has been removed from the site and that the excavation was related to a test being conducted to strengthen sediment in the pond.
The work continued into the night, he said, because the equipment was leased and materials arrived late.
“If we were trying to hide something, why would we put it under a spotlight that you could see for miles away?” he asked.
In addition to citing the excavation of contaminated soil, the request for injunction accuses Coronet of discharging “copious amounts” of wastewater containing “deadly contaminants.”
“Defendant has continually discharged water … through both permitted outfalls and non-permitted sites in such great quantities that the water is flowing … into creeks that feed directly into the Alafia River,” the motion said.
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Coronet in recent months has been discharging wastewater treated with lime into English Creek at a rate of 5 million gallons per day.
There is no evidence of an unauthorized discharge, said DEP’s Merritt Mitchell. DEP is monitoring water quality to ensure the discharge meets standards, she said.
Last week, the agency also investigated a reported Coronet discharge on Lexie Lane, where water gushed from a culvert beneath a private road and into a cow pasture next to Coronet property.
DEP staff concluded the water may have been runoff from a nearby strawberry field. But it was not coming from Coronet, Mitchell said.
Jim Ross, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “I find that hard to believe when both the government and Coronet have acknowledged in the past that it’s their discharge.”
Last May, state regulators issued a final order requiring the company to secure and manage the facility, which ceased operations two months before.
The DEP order called for Coronet to increase the level of treatment and reduce liquid waste stored on site by 200 million gallons by Aug. 31.
An amended order in October called for the company to treat and discharge even more to prevent an accidental spill of untreated waste during hurricane season.
That order expires Feb. 28. But on Jan. 13, DEP sent Coronet a letter calling for an end to the discharges so the agency can evaluate the effect on English Creek.
Meanwhile, lawyers suing Coronet say the evidence is vanishing before their eyes.
Less than six months ago, the holding ponds at Coronet Industries were brimming with wastewater. Today, they contain little more than puddles.
To date, Coronet has discharged nearly 800 million of an estimated billion gallons of wastewater stored in its 350 acres of ponds and ditches.
Ross said he doesn’t buy Coronet’s assertion that the excavation is related to sediment testing beside Pond 6.
“Coincidentally, that’s the exact same area where we have been told by whistleblowers that large acid towers have been buried,” he said. “Those towers stored hydrofluoric acid.”
Reporter Jan Hollingsworth can be reached at (813) 754-3765.