PLANT CITY – The state’s top environmental regulator has launched an internal investigation into how the state Department of Environmental Protection has handled enforcement action at Coronet Industries.

“Would you please make it a priority to thoroughly review how we got into the current situation at Coronet and what we might do to make sure it does not happen again,” DEP Secretary David Struhs wrote in an Aug. 13 letter to Pinky Hall, the DEP’s inspector general.

The state investigators will interview Douglas Holt, medical director of the Hillsborough County Health Department, and Richard Garrity, the director of the county Environmental Protection Commission.

For 15 years, Garrity was head of the Tampa DEP office. Struhs fired Garrity and two other state district chiefs without explanation in August 1999, five months after Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Struhs to head the state environmental agency.

After talking to managers at DEP’s Tampa office, Struhs wrote that he is “now even more concerned … and concerned with potential systemic problems that prevented the situation from being identified and corrected sooner.”

DEP’s handling of a 1999 hydrofluoric acid spill might be indicative of the agency’s response to plant violations.

In April 1999, Coronet reported to DEP that there was hydrofluoric acid spill from a tank at the plant.

DEP and Coronet’s environmental consulting firm, Environmental Sciences and Technology, corresponded over the spill for four years, and assessment of the area is still ongoing, records show.

The firm told DEP officials that the spill was “not catastrophic” just after it occurred in April 1999, but DEP officials noted concerns for groundwater and soil contamination two months later, records show.

Still, the public was not notified, and it was not until October that DEP sampled the wells of 13 residents in the area to determine how they might have been affected by the 1999 spill. One well contained a level of arsenic that exceeded the amount deemed safe by health officials.

DEP officials said these things take time.

DEP, EPC and the health department are assessing health complaints in neighborhoods surrounding Coronet Industries.

Officials are testing wells, soil and air for potential contamination from the plant and old landfills in the area.

Tests show about 20 wells contain levels of arsenic, boron, cadmium or lead that exceed state health standards.

* Reporter Deborah Alberto can be reached at (813) 754-3765.