April 20, 2024

Kristen Burke and her husband, Harold, moved into their home in Russell Landing, a rural suburb just outside of Jacksonville, Florida, nearly 15 years ago. The quiet and tight-knit neighborhood sits next to a shaggy pine forest and a blackwater canal. “This was our dream home,” said Burke.

It wasn’t until 2018 that she realized the extent of the pollution lurking next door: according to Burke, who recently became part of a local watchdog effort, an industrial plant that once operated nearby left barrels of toxic waste buried in the ground and never came back to clean up.

Just beyond the chain-link fence at the end of their street, many of these 50-gallon drums can still be seen poking up out of the ground. The neighborhood knew about the abandoned factory, which shut down in the 1990s. But now residents and former employees say that the contents of these barrels, along with groundwater and air pollution that government agencies failed to adequately regulate for decades, have contributed to a pattern of cancers, heart disease, birth defects and genetic disorders.

In recent years, Burke and her neighbors have grown more vocal about the health risks of living in Russell Landing, as developers have eyed the former plant’s property with the goal of building new housing to stanch Florida’s affordability crisis.

“The fear is that if excavators start kicking up those soils and clear-cutting trees, [then] all the waste is coming our way again,” Burke said. “Every day I have people asking me if it’s safe to live here.”

Last August, Burke started a citizen advocacy group alongside other members of the community whose lives have been affected by Solite, the corporation that owned the plant until it closed in 1995. Burke, who ran and was elected to the county commission in 2020, said she and others were tired of not having their concerns taken seriously by local environmental regulators and politicians. The group recently paid for soil and groundwater testing to measure the spread of toxins outside of the plant. Those results, which came back last October, indicated the presence of toxic metals such as cadmium, barium, lead, chromium and arsenic.

The testing proved what the community had alleged for years: that waste had migrated off-site and, in some cases, into residents’ backyards.

Another revelation followed that hastened the group’s advocacy. Weeks later, Burke and her neighbors learned that a 78-acre parcel of land within the former Solite property had been sold and was under contract for development with DR Horton, a multibillion-dollar corporation and America’s largest homebuilder.

The Northeast Solite Corporation, as it’s known today, opened its first quarry in Clay county, Florida, in the 1950s. Workers mined clay and shale from the property, which was then burned in rotary kilns at high temperatures to produce a lightweight cement aggregate. The material has been used to build some of the most iconic structures in America, including the US Capitol, the Freedom Tower and the deck of the original Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

In the 1960s, Solite began using hazardous waste, instead of more costly fossil fuels, to fire the kilns. Solite was contracted by other companies to dispose of such hazardous waste, which allowed the corporation to bring in revenue while also acquiring a fuel source for its kilns at no added cost. Kodak, General Electric, Revlon, Benjamin Moore and various military bases in the south-east all paid Solite – and its sister company, Oldover – to dispose of their waste.

“Nothing ever left that property,” said Michael Zelinka, 59, a former plant employee, referring to how the materials were either treated, burned in the kilns or otherwise disposed of on-site by being dumped in one of the company’s artificial lakes, or buried in blue barrels.

Working at Solite “was hell”, said Zelinka, “and nighttime was always the worst”. That’s when the kilns would burn heaviest, he said. Plumes of black smoke billowed into the sky for hours on end, and employees were ordered to disable the air-quality monitors at the perimeter of the property. Residents who lived nearby recall seeing treetops alight in an otherworldly, orange glow. In the morning, the surrounding area was often blanketed in a thin layer of soot, which was believed by environmental activists and hazardous waste experts to have contained dioxins and other toxic elements and chemical compounds. (A representative from Northeast Solite declined to comment on Zelinka’s account of his time employed at the company.)

Since its abrupt closure in 1995, Solite has claimed that there has been no off-site contamination – that all the hazardous waste was safely confined to surface impoundments called the “scrubber” and “overflow” ponds. That claim appears to have been tacitly supported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Florida department of environmental protection (FDEP). Although Solite was founded long before those agencies existed, records indicate that both have been aware of chemical spills and malpractice at the plant since the 1980s. Fines for environmental violations had been doled out over the years by both agencies, but no targeted health studies were ever authorized.

“Over the past 29 years since the plant’s closure … we have worked with [EPA] and [FDEP] under consent orders to investigate and remediate the property,” Albert Galliano, a representative of Northeast Solite, wrote in an email. “The results show little impact on the environment.”

As for the blue drums, Galliano said that those contained “fiberglass material and debris likely from a water storage tank or culvert pipe”.

When the Solite plant shut down in 1995, plans to offload the property to a developer were disclosed shortly after. In 1997, the property title was transferred to Stoneridge Farms, which had previously tried and failed to sell the property.

A possible connection between the area’s air, water and soil pollution and its high rate of illness was first publicized in the early 1990s, and it remains the salient anxiety to this day. Prolonged exposure to these contaminants can cause cancer, induce genetic damage and bind to DNA. According to the National Cancer Institute, Clay county has a 36.1% higher cancer rate than the state of Florida, and 47.2% higher rate than the country.

In 1996, the EPA issued a consent order requiring cleanup of the 230 acres of surface impoundments, which many residents viewed as an attempt to hold Solite accountable for abandoning the property. As yet, the site has not been forced into full compliance. (EPA did not return a request for comment.)

Zelinka said he became worried about the impact Solite was having on his health and the community after he had a near-fatal heart attack in his 20s, which he believed stemmed from the working conditions at the plant. At the time, his doctors found high levels of arsenic in his blood, which is linked to cardiac failure, according to the American Heart Association. Once he’d recovered and returned to work, Zelinka became more vocal about safety concerns. A few weeks later, he was fired.

Roughly six months later, in July of 1995, the plant was abandoned overnight. (In the early aughts, Solite plants in Virginia and North Carolina also closed down amid similar violations and circumstances.) The company would cite the rising operating costs, but Susan Armstrong, a local reporter who was present the morning Solite absconded, said it had more to do with the growing din of citizen and environmental activism, pending litigation and fines, and the promise of agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), FDEP and EPA to commence more frequent unscheduled visits.

The citizen task force led by Burke, which meets monthly, has become an outlet for residents to vent their frustrations not just about Solite, but about development in their community in general.

“I don’t need 900 new houses here,” said Randy Gillis, a resident of Russell Landing with a rare form of prostate cancer. He worries an influx of residents could overwhelm the roads and make it harder for him to make his doctor’s appointments.

DR Horton is often invoked among the task force as a common enemy, as is Michael Danhour, the Jacksonville-area developer who has been pursuing the Stoneridge Farms property since 2016 and submitted the proposal for rezoning in 2018. (The proposal was rejected.) He now represents the land trust that sold the development contract to DR Horton in October for the 78-acre parcel.

When prompted, Danhour suggested that development is the answer to hazardous contamination. The best way to ensure cleanup, he says, is by offering developers a path toward purchasing the land and rezoning it for housing; in return, the seller will set aside a portion of the sale price for land remediation. “[Developers] will be working alongside Stoneridge Farms to accelerate the cleanup efforts,” said Danhour.

He notes that $2m of the $3.3m purchase price of the DR Horton parcel is earmarked for cleaning up the contamination, as stipulated by FDEP. But the task force is quick to point out that the $2m is based on an environmental assessment from several years ago, with incomplete testing.

“We’ve done what we can with limited resources,” says Bruce Reynolds, a retired hazardous waste expert for the US military, who consulted on the task force’s recent testing. Last November, he traveled to Tallahassee to meet with the state environmental department and present the group’s initial findings. Reynolds and the task force now hope the agency will step in to conduct more substantive testing.

It seems their advocacy is working – at least for now. In late December, after reviewing the new materials and test results, the state environmental department did an about-face, writing in a letter to Burke and Reynolds that they no longer concur with the Stoneridge Farms claims about the scope of contamination.The department informed Northeast Solite that they won’t approve the company’s current proposal, and that another remediation plan is needed. That plan must be submitted in April. (In an email, Galliano said testing is underway and a report will be developed.)

The task force says this marks a seismic shift in the attitude of environmental regulators, one that they’ve awaited for decades.But residents remain circumspect about the future of the property.

“I try not to be pessimistic,” said Gillis. “But if I was a betting man, I’d say that [FDEP] will try to tell us this isn’t a worry for the community. One day there will be development. I can’t stop that even if I want to.”

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