AUBURNDALE – It has been widely hailed as a success story, a sterling effort that two decades ago reclaimed strip-mined phosphate lands and converted them into a state preserve attracting thousands each year.
In reality, Tenoroc Fish Management Area in Polk County may be closer to a horror story, the land tainted by high levels of radioactive compounds and toxic metals such as arsenic and lead, according to a federal study.
“The park employees are very aware of it,” said Danon Moxley, Tenoroc manager. “Just like anyone who looks at the report, obviously there is some concern on their end and mine. I work out here, too.”
That report, a draft version penned a year ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, notes a host of potentially toxic compounds found throughout the park in concentrations noted as “elevated” and of “concern.”
And officials think the findings warrant a closer look at current and former mine sites across the state.
Though stopping short of labeling Tenoroc a danger, the 57-page report calls for a deeper investigation of the risks that workers, visitors and residents face from a slate of dangerous chemicals found in the soil, sediment and water at the site.
One of those chemicals – radium-226 – was detected in soil and groundwater at levels up to 25 times higher than the EPA guidelines used to gauge the cancer risk at Superfund sites. Also found at the site were arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel, selenium and zinc, in concentrations at least three times of that in nearby untainted areas.
Many skeptical of findings
While Moxley said the areas in question are limited and either off-limits to or not easily accessible to visitors, the findings raised eyebrows outside the park.
“At Tenoroc, there are significant health concerns,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, a watchdog group founded in neighboring Manatee County.
Those concerns may extend beyond Tenoroc, he added, since the chemicals may move as water on the site flows into creeks and rivers – or into the groundwater tapped just four miles away for Auburndale’s drinking supply.
Compton has called an in-depth study of the Tenoroc tract. The draft EPA report echoes that call, but it downplays the dangers for the 20,000 people who visit the park each year or the 60,000-plus people who live within four miles of Tenoroc.
“We feel pretty comfortable that we’re so far below (safety) thresholds on recreation use that it would be OK,” said Brad Jackson, an EPA project manager. “It’s just that we’re so close to the industrial (use) threshold, and for the residential threshold, we’re above it.”
Those concerns prompted Jackson to call for more study, which the EPA could use as a framework for reviewing other phosphate-related sites in Florida. Those sites include abandoned phosphate plants and 13 parks, camps and fishing areas, as well as a half-dozen golf courses.
Tenoroc is a 6,000-acre sprawl of scrub and prairie about 40 miles east of Tampa, nestled between Lakeland, Polk City and Auburndale. The land had been mined for decades for its rich reserves of phosphate ore, used to make fertilizer products.
By the late 1970s, those reserves had dwindled, mining had slowed and reclamation of the mining pits had neared an end.
In 1982, Borden Chemical Corp. officials donated the land to the state, which set it up as a state park.
A decade later, the park became a fish management area, after Florida’s natural resources and environmental protection agencies merged.
Are fish safe?
Today, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission oversees Tenoroc. A staff of 10, including two who live on Tenoroc grounds, keeps the site open and ready for the streams of visitors who come to test their angling skills in five fishing pits stocked with largemouth bass and other sport fish, Moxley said.
But no one has tested the fish for poisoning, at least not for the record, according to the EPA report. And precious little testing has been done of the grounds and waters.
The decision on whether to conduct more tests likely won’t come for awhile. Jackson continues to work with higher-ranking officials at the EPA and in a number of states, putting together a framework for phosphate site investigations.
“We can’t really go any further in saying where we’re heading or what we’re leaning toward,” he said. “That’s something they’ve got to decide.
“Hopefully, it will be worked out in the next few months.”
* Kevin O’Horan writes for the Bradenton Herald, a Knight Ridder newspaper. He can be reached at email@example.com or (941) 745-7037.