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Larry Wheeler
News Journal Washington bureau

WASHINGTON – Pensacola’s contaminated drinking water is now on the “radar screen” of the Bush administration’s nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne, put it there.

Nelson met with Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt for about 20 minutes Wednesday and delivered a bluntly worded message of concern about Pensacola’s toxic waste problems and other environmental concerns around the state.

“I wanted him to understand the intensity of my feeling,” Nelson said after the two met. “I wanted him to see that eyeball to eyeball.”

Leavitt acknowledged that Nelson spoke with him about recent reports by the Pensacola News Journal that unsafe levels of radium contaminated the area drinking water supply as recently as September 2000.

The News Journal investigative series revealed that the Escambia County Utilities Authority supplied water contaminated with radium to Pensacola and Gulf Breeze residents from 1996 to 2000. The suspected source of radium is an underground plume of toxins from the Agrico Chemical Co. Superfund hazardous waste site in Pensacola.

Officials with EPA’s regional office in Atlanta said recently they would conduct an informal review of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s oversight of the ECUA.

“He clearly put (this) on my radar screen,” Leavitt said after meeting Nelson.

Leavitt said he was unaware of the details surrounding the Agrico site and could not give Nelson much of a response.

“At this point, I have absolutely no influence at the EPA,” he said. “I first need to be confirmed.”

Leavitt’s confirmation process hit a bump Wednesday as Senate Democrats refused to participate in a committee vote that would have forwarded his nomination to the full Senate.

Republicans complained Democrats are playing presidential politics with Leavitt’s nomination.

Democrats countered that they need more time to explore the views of the man the Bush administration wants to run the federal environmental agency.

Leavitt took the day’s development in stride.

“This is a moment where, in politics, like all other aspects of life, patience is a virtue,” Leavitt said.

Nelson said he urged Leavitt to respond to written questions posed to him about Pensacola’s drinking water problem, stressing its importance to people who reside near the Superfund site or who were exposed to the tainted water.

“I said, `There is nothing like going to a town hall meeting when people feel like their children’s health is being imperiled, and they try to express that frustration and fear,”‘ Nelson said. “I told him I want some answers back.”

SPECIAL REPORT Reports that radioactive material contaminated the drinking water in Pensacola surfaced
in the local media 17 months ago. Public documents now reveal that for at least
54 months, between February 1996 and September 2000, more than 10,000 residents
in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze were drinking water considered unsafe by the federal
government. Two former Escambia County Utilities Authority administrators knew about
the contamination and delayed notifying the public. ECUA officials also resisted
efforts to take immediate action to remove the contamination from the drinking water.
This series looks at the source of the contamination, why it took so long to eliminate
it and the impact on the community. The series also examines whether the EPA-approved
plan to clean up the old Agrico Chemical Co. fertilizer plant adequately protects
people and the underground aquifer that services the Pensacola Bay Area. Follow
the situation by clicking on the drop-down menu below. Click on the image above
for a detailed map of the toxic plume considered to be the source of the contamination.

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