Plant City commissioners are understandably furious that environmental regulators never notified them of serious pollution problems at a phosphate processing plant.
The commissioners were about to consider approving a huge development near Coronet Industries when the Tribune and WFLA-TV, News Channel 8 revealed the company had dozens of environmental violations and nearby residents complained of unusual illnesses that may be linked to the plant.
Neither city officials nor the residents were ever notified about the problems, which included, as the Tribune’s Deborah Alberto found, leaky storage tanks, air emissions problems and hydrofluoric acid spills that resulted in the discharges of arsenic and other toxins into English Creek.
Indeed, exceedingly high concentrations of such carcinogens as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and gross alpha radiation have been found on the Coronet Industries property.
Large amounts of fluorides, which in high doses cause health problems, have been found in its groundwater.
A test of a neighbor’s private well found an excess of arsenic. The Department of Environmental Protection conducted the test in 2002, but officials never told Billy and Laurel Williams they were trying to determine the extent of contamination caused by an acid spill at the plant. The agency provided a reverse osmosis system for the family’s kitchen but gave no health warnings.
Laurel Williams was diagnosed with osteoporosis at age 40. Their daughter had a tumor removed from her thumb and her son has tremors. This could all be coincidence. But many others in the area have similar serious afflictions.
Why didn’t someone sound an alarm earlier?
DEP officials told Alberto they do not have enough information to know if the plant threatens public health. They say their authority is mostly limited to approving or denying permits.
That is a weirdly narrow view. Perhaps the law needs to be revised. But it seems simple common sense, not to mention common courtesy, to notify neighbors and local officials of possible dangers. It’s no more than what a good neighbor would do.
Health officials plan to start testing wells and doing a public health assessment. State and federal law enforcement officials are pursuing claims that the company allowed illegal dumping and encouraged employees to mislead regulators. There is much more to learn about this disturbing case.
But one thing is already clear. The public was kept in the dark far too long about the plant’s potential threat.