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Toxic avengers

Learn about one of Central Florida's most polluted bodies of water on a Toxic Tour of the Lake Apopka area

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Toxic Tour of Apopka

To arrange a tour, call the Farmworker Association of Florida
Tours are $50 per group

It used to be that Lake Apopka wasn’t an oddity, but rather, a trophy. The lake, the third-largest in Florida, was considered a world-class fishing destination before the World War II. But as Central Florida’s population grew, so did the abuses the lake endured. Beginning in the 1940s, nutrient-rich wetlands on the lake’s north shore were utilized for agriculture (such operations eventually encompassed 20,000 acres); in the ensuing decades, the lake would become a repository for chemical runoff not only from farms but nearby citrus-processing plants as well. By the 1980s, Lake Apopka was considered the state’s most polluted large lake.

But it’s not just the environmental aspect of this tragedy that motivates Jeannie Economos, the wild-haired environmental health project coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida, to offer her singular “Toxic Tour” of the Lake Apopka area. It’s also the serious – and somewhat mysterious – health problems of many former farmworkers who worked for decades on Lake Apopka’s so-called muck farms. This is the third year of the Toxic Tour, and judging by the almost jittery level of energy emanating from the 58-year-old Economos, we imagine it’ll be around for many more.

The tour begins at the association’s headquarters on 1264 Apopka Blvd., though your group will need to provide its own vehicle – as well as 50 bucks – to take the tour. After a quick briefing on the lake and a 15-minute trek northward on Orange Blossom Trail past gritty motels, vast warehouses and the carcass of an old Pan Am propeller jet, you’ll turn onto Jones Avenue, which traces a straight line just north of Lake Apopka. On your right, you’ll see hundreds of old steel drums – formerly used to store pesticides – stacked into pyramids two stories tall. Then there are the decrepit, abandoned pieces of farm machinery, and this lovable piece of septic tank signage: “Ain’t no smelly with Shelley’s.”

After a left on 448A, you reach a dead end. This is the former site of Duda Farms, where hundreds of farmworkers worked and lived in cramped trailers until 1998, when the farms were shut down and the land was transferred into the state’s hands. Now, all that’s left of Duda are tall grasses and a sign from the St. Johns Water Management District warning of the DDT in the soil. It’s here that you’ll get out of the car for the first time, and if you’re lucky, you may spot the only animals that live here: a few large, furry black ants with red stripes.

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