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MTBE and TCE are Common Groundwater Contaminants

Groundwater Near Former Florida Plant Contaminated

TALLEVAST, FL -- July 2, 2004 -- Residents living near a former manufacturing plant once owned by the American Beryllium Company were not told about pollutants in their soil and groundwater, according to newspaper accounts. The new site owner, Lockheed Martin, discovered the problem nearly four years ago, but failed to alert its neighbors until last November. One article claims that state officials knew about the groundwater pollution as early as 1997 (Sarasota Herald Tribune, June 19, 2004).

Lockheed and a neighborhood group found arsenic in backyard soil and in some wells. They also reported high levels of trichloroethylene, a cancer-causing substance used as a degreaser, in many private wells (Bradenton Tribune, June 9, 2004, June 11, 2004). Other toxic solvents, including dichloroethylene and dichloroethane, were found in wells in amounts above the acceptable level for drinking water. These two chemicals are linked to nervous system damage.

At one time, soil from the manufacturing plant was distributed to homeowners living nearby. Residents are fearful that it may have contained beryllium and chromium, although these metals have not been found yet in Tallevast soil or water. Robert Smith, a former American Beryllium Company employee, even recalls disposing of waste scraps containing beryllium in a nearby pond (Sarasota Herald Tribune, May 30, 2004).

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the local Manatee Department of Health are now taking samples to test for beryllium, other heavy metals, solvents, and toxic substances. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) says that up until now, local and state officials have done a poor job of cleaning up pollution in Tallevast. He has contacted the federal Environmental Protection Agency for help. "It's inexcusable that there's been these kinds of delays," he said. "...I will do everything in my power to speed things up" (Sarasota Herald Tribune, June 19, 2004).

Florida law does not require the state or companies to inform a community about pollution until a cleanup plan has been approved, and that may take years. A recent internal DEP memo uncovered by the Bradenton Tribune supports rules that would require companies to alert residents as soon as pollution is discovered.

What is Being Done to Help Tallevast Residents

Seventeen Tallevast homes with contaminated wells have been connected to the county water system. Lockheed Martin is paying for the hook-up charges.

Neighborhood groups generally applaud further environmental testing and support cleanup by the federal EPA. Many feel, however, that more could be done to help the community. Residents say that rates of cancer and other diseases have been high for years. They want immediate medical testing and a detailed research program on community health problems. The Manatee County Department of Health will begin looking at health issues, although there is some question as to how far back the medical analysis will go. The Tallevast plant operated from 1961 through 1996.

Types of Groundwater Contaminants

Tallevast is by no means the only city with a water pollution problem. Groundwater can easily become contaminated due to industrial spills, leaks, and improper storage and disposal of chemicals. Cleaning compounds, metals, petroleum, fertilizers, paint products, and pesticides may make their way into soil and groundwater.

One common groundwater contaminant is MTBE, a flammable liquid that is used as an additive in unleaded gasoline. Underground or above ground petroleum tanks may corrode, deteriorate, and develop leaks. These leaks allow MTBE to migrate into soil and groundwater, polluting drinking water. Drinking MTBE-containing water or breathing fumes from that water causes nausea, nose and throat irritation, and damages the nervous system.

The contaminant found in Tallevast wells, trichloroethylene (TCE), can clean grease from metal parts and textiles. It does not occur in nature and is used in metal plating, metal finishing, and polishing (ATSDR, Trichloroethylene). Wool fabric mills, steel pipe manufacturers, rubber processing plants, and car manufacturers commonly use the compound. Because the American Beryllium Company plant grinded and processed beryllium metal into components for nuclear weapons and the aerospace industry, one would expect TCE to be present at that site.

The Florida standard of TCE for drinking water is a maximum of 3 parts per billion; the federal maximum level is 5 parts per billion. Some Tallevast wells had readings of up to 500 parts per billion, clearly more than enough to prove harmful to residents.

People are exposed to TCE by breathing in vapors from contaminated shower water, or coming into contact with TCE-containing soil. Exposure to TCE leads to liver ailments and greatly increases the risk of developing liver and kidney cancers.

American Beryllium Company May Also Have Exposed Its Workers to Beryllium

Sadly, the Tallevast story does not end with polluted groundwater. American Beryllium, the company that was not a good neighbor, may also have exposed its own workers to dangerous levels of beryllium.

The Sarasota Herald Tribune reports that when the Tallevast plant was sold to Lockheed Martin, scrapings from its walls and ceilings yielded very high beryllium readings. Also, according to a noted pulmonologist, Dr. Lee Newman of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, beryllium lathes and grinding machines were not located in individual rooms, thus allowing beryllium dust to escape throughout the plant (Herald Tribune, May 30, 2004). He suggests that anyone who worked in the plant be tested for chronic beryllium disease or berylliosis, a painful scarring of the lung tissue that leads to shortness of breath and chest pain. In its advanced stage, the disease may also adversely effect the heart.

Berylliosis begins as an allergic reaction or "sensitization" to beryllium. Early symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, fevers, skin rash, and night sweats. Screening methods for beryllium disease include chest x-rays, a blood test called the "beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test," and a breathing test (see Detection of Beryllium Disease for more details).

A worker may develop signs of berylliosis anywhere from several months to 40 years after initial beryllium exposure (Chronic Beryllium Disease: Overview). We can expect some employees of the Tallevast plant to show their first berylliosis symptoms in the coming years. Still others have already contracted the disease.

At Brayton Purcell, we are concerned about the pollution of our water, air, and soil, as well as the damage done to people who work with toxic substances. We have been successfully handling cases involving these environmental and work issues for over 20 years, including those involving exposure to MTBE and beryllium. If you have been injured by harmful chemicals, please feel free to contact us to learn about your legal options.

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