Scott Streater @PensacolaNewsJournal.com
It was a stifling August afternoon in 1997 when Tom Pratt addressed the Escambia County Utilities Authority’s elected board.
The topic: contamination of three ECUA wells serving thousands of people in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze by an underground plume of toxic chemicals from the Agrico Chemical Co. Superfund hazardous waste site.
Radioactive water flowed to thousands of homes (9/7/03) Radium’s risk not agreed on (9/7/03) Timeline of events (9/7/03) Water’s radium risk downplayed (9/8/03) Questions raised, but answers not forthcoming (9/8/03) The long-term effect of the toxic plume (9/8/03) Companies avoid water cleanup (9/9/03) Conoco disputes accusations in toxic pollution lawsuit (9/9/03) Companies avoid water cleanup (9/9/03) Conoco disputes accusations in toxic pollution lawsuit (9/9/03) Feds urged to revisit plume plan (9/10/03) Golden seeking probe by grand jury (9/10/03) Health official explains radium risks (9/11/03) Lanza wants to allay fears about radium in water (9/11/03) Feds take a look at water case(9/20/03) Utilities Authority faces suit (9/26/03) Pollution puts officials in hot seat (10/1/03) Senator puts radium on radar (10/2/03)
Pratt, groundwater bureau chief for the Northwest Florida Water Management District, told the board that two ECUA wells – No. 9 and East – were contaminated by the Agrico plume. And pollution at a third well at F & Scott streets, roughly a half-mile southwest of Agrico, appeared to be “weakly linked” to the plume.
It was not clear whether the news upset or concerned the board members, Pratt remembered. No one asked any questions, he said.
“I don’t remember a strong reaction to anything that was said,” he said.
ECUA administrators, however, must have understood the significance of Pratt’s report and that the information in it could be extremely embarrassing. That’s because in 1993, without consulting the board, they helped the companies responsible for cleaning the plume avoid pumping out the contaminated groundwater and treating it. Instead, the toxic plume will remain in the groundwater for 70 years. Now, state regulators have evidence the plume was in ECUA wells.
Pratt acknowledged the entire southern half of Pensacola is polluted from heavy industrial and manufacturing activities, making it “sometimes difficult to identify where a particular contaminant comes from,” he told the board, records show.
But at minimum, his report raised questions about public assurances from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that as the plume naturally filtered through the ground, “It is unlikely that nearby municipal water supply wells will be impacted,” as EPA wrote in 1994, explaining why it approved the controversial cleanup plan.
The pollutants Pratt and the Water Management District found in the wells were aluminum and manganese, both of which are in the Agrico plume. The Water Management District did not test for radium 226 or radium 228, which also are in the plume.
But the implications were obvious: If aluminum and manganese from the plume were in these wells, so was radium.
ECUA apparently never made that connection.
“They didn’t test, so they don’t know that it was in there,” said Donald Mitchell, ECUA’s Quality Assurance/ Quality Control manager. “That’s the way I feel.” In fact, Bernie Dahl, then ECUA’s scientific, technical and regulatory administrator, claimed years later during a board meeting that he did not know radium was a contaminant in the Agrico plume.
Dahl, who retired from ECUA in January, declined to comment.
The utility never followed up Pratt’s report with research of its own. Nor did it ask the Water Management District, which has an extensive network of groundwater monitoring wells across central Pensacola, to help it conduct a more detailed investigation.