PLANT CITY – Juanita Burnett shuffled from the parking lot to the recreation center, her stooped frame supported by a stout wooden cane.
She paused every now and then to catch her breath, which has grown short and becomes shorter with each passing year.
“For a long time they thought it was my heart,” she said. “But there’s nothing wrong with my heart.”
Burnett is a 40-year resident of Lincoln Park, one of two communities where state and federal agencies launched a health inquiry in the spring of 2003.
As the investigation approaches the end of its second year, Burnett is no closer to answers than she was in July, when health officials came to Lincoln Park to update residents on the results of environmental testing spawned by widespread health complaints.
It has been a long and difficult journey for many of the people who live and work in the shadow of the defunct Coronet Industries phosphate processing plant.
The smokestacks that for decades blanketed the area with a layer of fine dust are idle. But many wonder about Coronet’s legacy.
“The long-term effects of what was happening over the years is what I’m concerned about,” Burnett said.
Nearly 1,000 residents are suing Coronet, claiming the century-old enterprise damaged their health and property values.
Burnett, 63, isn’t one of them. She says she just wants to know the truth about the illness that has left her gasping for air and dependent on a breathing machine.
She doesn’t smoke. She has no family history of respiratory problems. The stench from the plant over the years was unbearable, she said.
Does she blame Coronet?
“I can’t honestly answer that,” she said “I really don’t know.”
Tests of soil, air, groundwater and fish from local ponds have yielded contamination from numerous toxic substances, some at levels that far exceed state and federal standards.
But not enough to make people sick, according to health officials.
Yet some people are sick, they concede, and no one can say why.
“The science is just not available to answer some of these questions,” said Rose Jackson of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tribune Survey Results
Last year, The Tampa Tribune published the results of a door-to-door survey of residents living within a quarter- mile of Coronet, in the community of Springhead.
The informal inquiry, conducted by the Tribune and WFLA, News Channel 8, asked basic questions about the health and lifestyle of residents of 250 households in the neighborhood.
Though unscientific, it offered insight into the nature and scope of complaints that captured the attention of health officials.
It was the first time anyone had asked about what ailed them, they said.
Many Springhead residents in the neighborhoods bordering the plant draw their water from private wells. Some of those wells were found to be contaminated with a number of chemicals and heavy metals.
In Lincoln Park, the water comes from treated municipal supplies.
Nonetheless, the subdivision has seen its share of pollution from Coronet stacks and at least two abandoned landfills.
Johnnie Cooper, who leads the Plant City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was the first to seek an inquiry into reports of cancers and other ailments in the community.
In addition to pointing to Coronet and the abandoned dumps, Cooper complained the stench of raw sewage reportedly wafts through Lincoln Park, which floods during heavy rains.
He also expressed concerns about sewage- and chlorine- like odors coming from local taps, suggesting that contaminated runoff was flowing into municipal water supplies.
“Mr. Cooper complains periodically, and every time we test it, it’s been fine,” said Kathy Burke, director of Plant City’s utilities department.
More than a third of the Lincoln Park residents surveyed by the Tribune reported seeing sewage flowing in their ditches.
Almost half said their water sometimes smells foul.
The water does have high residuals of chlorine at times and can turn brown when the city periodically flushes the pipes, Burke said.
That’s generally when the complaints trickle in, she said.
As for the reported stench during heavy rains, it likely comes from standing water and a high water table, Burke said.
“A significant portion of Lincoln Park is in the flood plain,” she said. “It can become stagnant and doesn’t smell too good.”
The Tribune’s door-to-door survey of 126 households in that community, completed last summer, sheds light on the similarities and differences in the two Coronet Junction study areas.
Snapshot Of Lincoln Park
The people of Lincoln Park tend to be older and poorer than those in Springhead. They generally have lived there longer. And, according to the Tribune’s survey, their self-reported health complaints are more widespread.
The families surveyed have lived in Lincoln Park, on average, nearly a quarter-century.The processing plant and old landfills are possible sources of contaminants found in the soil, air, water and urine of some residents, according to state and federal investigators.
But the existence of those contaminants, health inspectors say based on preliminary study, is not cause for immediate alarm. Not only is the science of tracing the causes of sickness imperfect, comparing rates of illnesses inside a neighborhood with those of the population at large is inexact. At best, the survey provides a baseline snaphot of the neighborhood’s state of health:
* More than a third of the Lincoln Park households surveyed reported at least one family member with chronic respiratory problems. Half of those were nonsmokers.
* More than a third reported at least one current or previous resident diagnosed with cancer.
* Two-thirds of the households reported at least one family member suffering from chronic joint pain.
* About 30 percent said they have chronic rashes.
* Another 30 percent reported gastrointestinal problems.
* Ten percent reported miscarriages or fertility problems.
* Another 10 percent had children with delayed physical or mental development.
Coronet officials have said “informal and unscientific surveys like this fail to provide real answers to real concerns.
“More importantly, there is a lot we already know based on a number of scientific studies, including that there is no evidence linking the plant to residents’ health concerns,” Coronet spokesman Tom Stewart said in a statement issued last year.
State and federal investigators say it is difficult, if not impossible, to link illness to environmental conditions, especially on a neighborhood level.
Like the Tribune’s survey, the environmental tests conducted in the course of the investigation provide a snapshot – in this case of what was present in the soil, air and water at that moment in time.
But they do not suggest what residents may have been exposed to in the past.
Exposure to current levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and other contaminants found in the Coronet Junction area pose “no apparent health hazard,” according to health officials.
That preliminary determination has encouraged developers to move forward with plans to build Lakeside Station, a 2,600-unit subdivision on and near two landfills that operated from 1959 until the early to mid-1960s.
The Plant City Commission recently approved a request to rezone the industrial property for residential use.
As for what people may have been breathing, ingesting, absorbing for decades before – no one likely will ever know.
Officials call the public health hazard for past exposures “indeterminate.”
Attorneys for residents suing Coronet and the various companies that have owned it are focusing on the historical aspects of their exposure to contaminants – both known and unknown.
“I have a concern that not all of the necessary contaminants that are out there have been tested for,” said Jim Ross of the Arlington, Texas, law firm McCurdy and McCurdy.
Ross, who specializes in toxic litigation, is working with the California law firm Masry and Vititoe, which employs environmental crusader Erin Brockovich-Ellis.
Nearly 900 plaintiffs have joined the case, which could take five or more years to resolve, Ross said.
He is arranging for his experts to take environmental samples from the Coronet plant site, which ceased operations at the end of March.
A second lawsuit filed by local attorneys is seeking class- action status for about 1,000 residents in the Coronet Junction area.
Class Action Status Questioned
A hearing on the matter was scheduled for Friday.
Ross does not believe a class action is warranted in the Coronet case.
“It is our position that a class action is not made for this type of litigation,” he said. “There are too many differences in the types of illness, the amounts and routes of exposure.”
The official health assessment from state and federal investigators has been delayed for several months by the resignation of a key state health team member and four hurricanes that swept the state.
Preliminary reports have concluded there is no imminent threat to public health. However, investigators have identified what they believe to be a plume of polluted groundwater that has led them to advise about 41 families to stop drinking from their wells and supply them with bottled water. The city expects to complete work by 2006 on a water line to supply those homes with municipal water.
Randy Merchant, environmental administrator for the Florida Department of Health, said he hopes to have the final draft completed by July.
“In general, I don’t expect our conclusions to change much,” he said.
Tribune researcher Buddy Jaudon and reporter Bob Fryer contributed to this story. Reporter Jan Hollingsworth can be reached at (813) 754-3765.