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Mount Dioxin, Pensacola, Florida: Toxic Town

 
 

By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL

 
 

Mount Dioxin is an example of a toxic town (see entry in this dictionary on toxic towns). Mount dioxin is the third largest relocation/remediation project undertaken by the US EPA after Love Canal and Times Beach (see dictionary entries on these toxic towns). Mount Dioxin is located in Pensacola, Florida on the Florida panhandle.

Mount dioxin is a Superfund site, and the location of two former, heavily polluting industries, a fertilizer plant (Agrico Chemical) and a wood treatment facility (Escambia Treating Company). EPA documents describe some of the disposal processes that lead to ground water contamination produced by these facilities in Pensacola (EPA Mount Dioxin Description). A description of the site and the twenty year delay in responding to negative environmental and community conditions at the site are also described by the Center for Environmental Health & Justice (CEH&J Documents).

Escambia Treating used two different processes to treat wood on the site from 1944 through 1982, when the facility was closed. Between 1944 and 1970, Escambia treated wood with coal-tar creosote, and then from 1970 through 1982 with a new wood preservative, pentachlorophenol (PCP). In the process of making PCP, it often becomes contaminated by dioxin, a known carcinogen.

During the early years that the facility operated (1944 through sometime in the mid-1950) water contaminated by creosote products was disposed in unlined, open pits on the site. Later, a recycling program that recaptured some of the creosote was built. The waste product from that recycling process was stored in a large open pit and later emptied into the Pensacola sewer system. These processes carried out over 40 years placed stress on the local environment as well as the municipal waste water treatment system. In the early 1980s, the US EPA opened an investigation of these disposal processes for prosecution and the need for remediation (EPA Fact Sheet). EPA investigations indicated the presence of a number of toxins in the local environment and in nearby neighborhoods including dioxin, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), arsenic, and a banned pesticide, dieldrin. Blood samples taken from former employees and neighborhood residents showed elevated levels of dioxin. Neighborhood residents were found to suffer from diseases prevalent among former plant employees.

The EPA investigation revealed that 96 acres were affected by toxic pollutants associated with wood treatment at the site. In 1982 when the plant closed, Escambia Treatment also went bankrupt meaning that the EPA would be unable to recover funds for cleaning up the site.

The EPA investigation found other environmental problems on site. These included leaking 55 gallon storage drums, asbestos insulation around old boilers, and leaking electrical transformers. The site study revealed that on-site soils contained dioxin levels 544,000 times safe exposure limits. Elevated levels of PCPs were also found at depths up to 14 feet.

The EPA began remediation efforts at the site in 1991. The project proved larger than expected, and 54,000 cubic yards of soil and sludge had to be removed to a depth of up to 40 feet. Further analysis revealed that as much as 100,000 cubic yards of sludge and soil would need to be removed to complete the remediation effort. Two years later, that estimate proved to be a significant under-estimate, and the EPA had already removed 255,000 cubic yards of soil and sludge.

During the remediation efforts, storms caused heavy erosion on the site and allowed waste to wash into surrounding neighborhoods. In 1994, the site remained a problem and was added to the EPA’s list of Superfund sites.

Problems at the site continued to mount (for additional discussion click here). The pile of waste collected from the site continued to expand and reached 600 feet tall and took up a space that was 1,000 feet long and 40 feet wide. The site remediation effort was well over budget, and the EPA was out of money for the remediation effort having spent twice ($43 million) the expected cost. At this point, the EPA re-estimated that 400,000 cubic yards of soil and sludge needed to be removed from the site. The waste pile became so large that there was too much waste to be treated, and the EPA responded by covering the site with a large plastic liner. The liner is now well past its life expectancy, and reviews of the conditions of the site by the Army Corps of Engineers reveals numerous remaining problems on site caused by deterioration of the plastic liner (see, Streeter, 2003).

During the remediation efforts, nearby residents complained of dust from the site, and suffered respiratory difficulties. Area residents, who were largely African-American, claimed that race played a role in the poor site remediation and control efforts taken by EPA. Residents claimed that the remediation efforts were themselves responsible for additional illnesses for neighborhood residents. Their concerns were ignored and remediation continued. Eventually, residents formed a local group, Citizens Against Toxic Exposure (CATE) (CATE Link) to address these problems, and sometime later convinced the EPA to offer a relocation response. The EPA’s relocation efforts, however, were minimal, and they moved only 66 families from nearby sites. The resident were not pleased with this limited solution, and continued to push EPA for a more extensive solution. In 1996 the EPA eventually agreed to move 358 families. The cost of the relocation effort was $ 25.5 million, and was the first major EPA relocation of an African-American community affected by an environmental disaster.

The relocation was not without its problems as well. African-American residents claimed they were offered lower allowances to buy new homes and to cover the costs of relocation (for discussion of this and related issues related to environmental justice at Superfund sites see: Mount Dioxin Relocation; for academic research related to this topic see for example: Faber and Krieg, 2002; Bullard,2000; Ringquist, 2005; Stretsky and Hogan, 1998).
 
 
Further Reading

In this dictionary see:”Toxic Towns” entry



References

Bullard, Robert D. 2000. Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Faber, Daniel R., and Eric J. Krieg. 2002. Unequal exposure to ecological hazards: environmental injustices in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Environmental Health Perspectives 110, Suppl 2: 277-288.

Ringquist, Evan J. 2005. Assessing evidence of environmental inequities: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 24, 2: 223-247.

Streeter, Scott. 2003. EPA evaluates replacing tarp covering ‘Mount Dioxin:’ Stability during hurricane spurs cost evaluation. Pensacola News Journal, April 1: 1.

Stretesky, Paul, and Michael J. Hogan. 1998. Environmental justice: An analysis of superfund sites in Florida. Social Problems 45, 2: 268-289.

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