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Poison in the well

The EPA’s investigation of a toxic site in Parramore took two decades. How many more will it take to clean it up?

Photo: Shan Stumpf, License: N/A

Shan Stumpf

Gray matter: The map shows the location of the former Orlando Gasification Plant; the shaded portion indicates area affected by underground pollution

On Sept. 13, 1988, hydrologist Anne Bradner arrived in downtown Orlando to draw samples from a water-monitoring well at the southeast corner of Jefferson Street and Gertrude Avenue in Parramore. Her employer, the U.S. Geological Survey, suspected that a coal-gasification plant had polluted soil and groundwater in the area. When the results came in a week later, the organization’s fears were confirmed. High concentrations of volatile compounds were detected; further investigation was 

Twenty-two years later, that time-consuming investigation is finally wrapping up. Next week, scientists from environmental consulting firm Arcadis will visit the area to do a final study of the site of the former Orlando Gasification Plant before it enters into the long, slow process of remediation. In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the site a “Superfund alternative” – a site that fits the federal government’s definition of an uncontrolled hazardous waste site (a Superfund) but does not qualify for federal funds for cleanup. Remediation of the Orlando Gasification Plant will have to be paid for by those responsible for polluting 
the property.

The coal-gasification plant (also called a manufactured gas plant) left a mile-long swath of tar-tainted water percolating through the Upper Floridan aquifer beneath downtown Orlando. The EPA says the plume of contamination is not an immediate health hazard because the city gets its water from wells drilled deep into the Lower Floridan aquifer, which is separated from the Upper aquifer by a “confining layer” of rock. Though the county uses water from the Upper Floridan, hydrologists say its water sources are not within range of the plume. Activists, however, say it could take decades to clean up the contamination in the Upper aquifer, and at the rate the region consumes water, it may soon need to tap into the Upper aquifer to meet demand.

According to the St. Johns River Water Management District, a state regulatory 
agency that oversees water use in the region, human withdrawals from the Floridan aquifer will outpace the natural recharge rate in 2013 due to “rapid growth, poor planning, and an inefficient use of water.”

“We’ve been so blessed to have one of the most productive sources of freshwater on the planet, yet we’ve taken it for granted,” says Jimmy Orth, executive director of St. Johns Riverkeeper, a nonprofit watchdog organization for the St. Johns River and its watershed. Compared to processes like desalinization, Orth says, drawing drinking water from the aquifer is cheap and easy, but the pollution in the aquifer “may have eliminated an option that was much more cost-effective.”

The Orlando Gasification site, located along the 500 and 600 blocks of West Robinson Street, is one of very few former manufactured gas plant sites being addressed by the EPA. The agency estimates there may be up to 5,000 such sites in the country, but only 28 have entered the Superfund programs; aside from Orlando, there are five other such sites in Florida, located in Jacksonville, Ocala, Sanford, St. Augustine and Tallahassee.

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