Black Floridians Await Settlement on Toxic Contamination

  • by Christiana Weidanz (new york)
  • Inter Press Service

Most do not even know who their representative is because no one can remember the last time a representative came to speak with the community. Most do not plan to vote because they don't see the point.

For close to four decades, residents of Tallevast in southwest Florida lived side by side with the American Beryllium Company, which employed local men and women to manufacture parts for nuclear weapons. Each day, workers inhaled beryllium dust and brought it home on their clothing.

In an award-winning investigative journalism series for the Miami Herald titled 'Toxic Town', resident Charles Ziegler says, 'You came home, you brought that mess home.' Along with his wife, Ziegler suffers from chronic beryllium disease, a fatal scarring of the lung tissue.

Adora Nweze, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the state of Florida, says the Tallevast case is only the tip of the iceberg.

'I can tell you this,' she told IPS. 'This whole state is covered with stories similar to this town's. There are areas, in the Black community in particular, where people are dying of cancer. Companies are depositing their copper and all sorts of metals in their drinking water.'

'Public health has been testing,' she continued sceptically, 'but something needs to be done. This is very, very real.'

Unbeknownst to Tallevast residents, toxic chemicals used in the plant, including dioxin and TCE, were seeping into the ground. By the time local regulators investigated, a poisonous plume had spread across 200 acres below the small historically Black town.

The plant was sold to defence contractor Lockheed Martin in 1996, and the leakage was discovered as the company prepared to sell the property in 2000. The state of Florida and Manatee County officials were notified but the problem was hidden from residents. State officials quietly began removing soil until a resident questioned their actions. In late 2003 information was finally released on the groundwater contamination.

Only then did the truth of this environmental nightmare begin to come to light.

By this time, nearly one person in every household had been diagnosed with a type of cancer, and many people were dying very young.

State officials later conceded that the 'notification provisions of our rules were not adequate' and that residents should not have had to wait three years to hear about the contamination under their homes.

In 2004, the community filed four lawsuits against the multinational defence contractor to address their health and property damages. The first of these was scheduled to be heard this month but talks toward an out-of-court settlement are also underway.

'I'm angry,' says Laura Ward, who with fellow Tallevast resident Wanda Washington leads a small community organisation called Family Oriented Community United and Strong (FOCUS). 'I made baby formula and cooked for my family with that water for years while people at Lockheed Martin and at the county regulatory agencies knew how harmful it was.'

Ward, who has two children who have had 'bouts with cancer,' says she is also upset because she had to learn about the contamination herself.

'We've been a community that's been overlooked for so long,' observed Ward, 'and I think it's felt that if they continue to overlook us, we might go away.'

Ward's husband, Dr. Clifford ('Billy') Ward, the town dentist, traces his family's history on the land back to the 1890s, when the town began as a 'turp camp' where freed slaves got jobs teasing the sap out of long-leaf 'slash' pines and boiling it into turpentine for use in the nation's shipyards and harbours.

'The first thing that went through my mind was, How could this happen? Why didn't anyone tell us?' asked Cassandra 'Casey' Brice whose grandfather, Thomas Bryant, and his brother, Eli, founded the Bryant Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church a few blocks from her home.

'I think about my neighbors next door, my cousin, my community,' worried Beatrice Ziegler. 'None of us is living safe. None of us!'

'You just feel like you've been robbed of your heritage and your legacy,'' said lifelong resident Beverly Bradley, whose hands and feet were attacked by a fungus she fears came from the plant's soil. 'Tallevast is us. It's like they are taking our whole lives away from us.''

Reporter Ronnie Greene of the Miami Herald captured these voices of Tallevast in the groundbreaking two-part investigative story and video: 'Toxic Town'. In August, Greene, received an award from the Sidney Hillman Foundation in recognition of his exceptional reporting. 'The Sidney' recognises outstanding socially conscious journalism.

'Today the village of Tallevast is little more than a giant environmental testing ground,' Greene wrote. 'More than 200 wells monitor a plume that spread from an initial estimate of five acres to more than 200.'

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin said through a representative that it has no plans to relocate any of the residents, claiming the source of the chemical leak has been capped.

'While Lockheed Martin did not operate the facility, it remains responsible for the cleanup associated with the contamination from the site,' the company states on a website.

The full remediation process is expected to take 50 years.

'Many things were surprising, but perhaps none more than the fact that the town had been polluted with a cancer-causing chemical - but no one told the residents,' said Greene. 'Not the state, not the county, not industry.'

Their struggles also brought about a change in the state laws of Florida. Now state officials must tell residents within 30 days if any sorts of health hazards are found in the community.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service