PLANT CITY – Health officials will be knocking on doors this week asking residents for permission to test their wells in areas near Coronet Industries.

A survey of the area today revealed that there are between 75 and 90 private wells within a 1/4 mile radius of the phosphate processing plant.

About 30 to 45 of those wells will be initially sampled. This will provide officials a starting point as they embark upon a year-long public health assessment of the area. Well samples will be tested for metals, fluoride and solvents, also called volatile organic chemicals, said Randy Merchant, a state health department spokesman. Later in the week, officials will return to collect samples for radiological analysis. Those samples are collected separately because they require collecting a gallon of water, health officials said.

“Those parameters are subject to change, depending on what we find,” Merchant said. If the tests show a reason for concern, officials will likely extend well sampling to include an area 1/2 mile from the plant.

It could be about six weeks before the results are officially in, but if contaminants are found in a private well, those residents will be immediately notified, said Shaun Crawford, an environmental scientist with the state health department.

“Typically, a lab analysis can take four to six weeks, before it can come back, be analyzed and approved by management,” Merchant said.

Crawford is part of a six-member team stationed at the state health department, but funded by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control, and works solely on public health assessments undertaken by the federal health agency.

Residents in a neighborhood northwest of the plant and a community east of the plant sought help from the federal government in researching what they say is a high rate of cancer and other illnesses, which some people think may be associated with pollutants from the plant or old landfills in the area.

Health officials want to know if contaminants found on Coronet’s property south of the city limits are seeping into private wells.

A recent statistical analysis by the state health department showed that the rates of cancer in Zip Codes for those two neighborhoods are slightly below the state average. But health officials will take a closer look, Merchant said.

The community northwest of the plant is on city water, which health officials don’t believe to be a problem source of contamination.

But airborne pollutants are a potential source, and the county’s Environmental Protection Commission stands ready to assist should there be a need, said the agency’s air director Jerry Campbell.

Health officials said the first priority is testing wells, but soil and air tests are future considerations. The plant releases tons of potential pollutants each year, officials said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection tested 14 wells for contamination about a year ago, and found a slightly elevated level of arsenic in one well. The department provided the residents a water filtration system, but DEP officials contend that the arsenic wasn’t at a level that would pose a health threat. The health department considers arsenic to be excessive at levels exceeding 10 parts per billion, but the state of Florida still utilizes a 50 parts per billion standard, said DEP spokesman Mike Zavosky.

“It’s not legally adopted – it’s not yet a rule. [The health department’s standard] is precautionary, but eventually the standard will be lowered. That’s why we provided the filter,” Zavosky said.

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