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Public works site polluted aquifer water

Tests find gas and pesticides from the former county compound seeped into the key drinking water source.

Published September 24, 2006

BROOKSVILLE - Hernando County's public works compound polluted the Floridan aquifer with gasoline and pesticides, including carcinogens, according to the county's most recent report on the long-running cleanup.

Tests found the carcinogen benzene at 430 times the limit considered safe for drinking water. The aquifer provides drinking water for most of north and central Florida. The water - and chemicals - appear to be moving north toward two public water supply wells one-half mile away, according to preliminary tests.

Brooksville's drinking water is safe, said Will Smith, superintendent of utilities for the city.

"We have no indications that it's not. It meets all the current standards," Smith said. Out of concern for other polluted sites nearby, he tests the Lamar Avenue wells in South Brooksville monthly for petroleum, he said.

Tampa Bay Water's nearest well, more than 15 miles south in Pasco County, is unlikely to be affected, said Christine Owen, water quality assurance officer.

The utility draws water from the Floridan for 2.4-million residents in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties and St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey.

Hernando County officials insisted for years that an underground clay layer protected the aquifer.

They were wrong.

Chemicals filtered downward while the county's 15-year-long cleanup repeatedly stalled. Eventually, those chemicals fouled the aquifer, according to the latest report, released in July.

Last week, the County Commission approved funding for 150-foot deep wells to track how far the chemicals spread in the water supply.

"We know it's not good," said county engineer Gregg Sutton, who directs the county's cleanup. "So the next question is: to what extent? And what do we do about it?"

County Administrator Gary Kuhl said, "You hope it hasn't spread very far."

Kuhl said he's been pushing the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the cleanup, to approve the new monitoring wells even before the agency completed its review of the July report.

"We do know that some pollutants have made it into the Floridan and we will approve additional work to evaluate the impact," Pamala Vazquez, DEP spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail. There are no private drinking water wells in the area, Vazquez said.

The county's public works department used the compound on W Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard from 1955 to 2003 for mosquito control, fleet maintenance, refueling, and road painting and repair. Chemicals used there included gasoline, diesel, pesticides, paint and paint thinner. Many of those chemicals spilled into the dirt and groundwater.

The county began investigating the pollution in 1991 but failed to make the cleanup a priority. Last summer, following criticism from local activists, county and DEP officials promised swift action.

The county hired a new consultant, who quickly found that the pollution was wider spread than the county thought. The number of contaminated "hot spots" doubled. Soil tests found arsenic and lead in neighboring yards. Chemicals had, in fact, seeped into the Floridan.

Benzene and other pollutants probably leaked from an underground fuel storage tank, the report said.

Pesticides were also found in the aquifer, including aldrin and dieldrin, both probable carcinogens. It's unclear where the pesticides came from, the report notes.

"It's very frightening," said Linda Young, director of Florida's Clean Water Network, based in Tallahassee.

The chemicals dilute as they move through the Floridan, but she took little comfort in that, she said.

"I don't know about everybody else, but I don't want to drink it at all," Young said. "I don't consider any carcinogenic chemicals in your water a minor issue, at any level."

Owen, of Tampa Bay Water, said there are thousands of polluters throughout the state who threaten the Floridan. She monitors DEP cleanups of dry cleaners, leaking fuel tanks, and others, some within one-quarter mile of some of the utility's wells. The utility aggressively monitors water quality, she said.

Smith, of Brooksville's utility, said he recently tested the nearby Lamar Avenue wells for pesticides and found no contamination. The two wells - the city operates five - pump more than 500,000 gallons a day to the city's 10,000 to 12,000 users. He tests far more often than the law requires, because he is concerned about polluted sites nearby, including the public works compound.

But residents shouldn't worry, he said. "We're on guard here."

Q&A: polluted floridan aquIfer

Where is the pollution coming from?

Hernando County's former public works compound is on W Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard in South Brooksville. The county used the site from 1955 to 2003 for road painting and repair, mosquito control, refueling, and fleet maintenance. Chemicals used there include paints, paint thinner, gasoline, diesel fuel and pesticides. Many of those chemicals or their byproducts have been found in the soil and groundwater.

What chemicals were found in the Floridan aquifer beneath the public works site?

Water tests at 120 feet to 125 feet underground detected benzene, a carcinogen, and the pesticides aldrin and dieldrin, both possible carcinogens.

What is the Floridan aquifer?

The Floridan aquifer is an underground water supply found throughout Florida and parts of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. It provides most of the drinking water for north and central Florida.

Where is the closest well to the site?

Near the southwest corner of Lamar Avenue and S Main Street, one-half mile north.

Is it safe to drink my tap water?

Yes, said Will Smith, utility superintendent for Brooksville. The nearest wells are tested regularly for contaminants. The water quality meets state and federal guidelines.

[Last modified September 24, 2006, 09:33:18]

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