Hurricane Irma sent more than 1.5 million gallons of raw sewage into local homes and waterways. But some floodwaters may have contained more than just sewage.
The storm inundated some of the most toxic properties in the state, and one site caught the attention of federal regulators.
Fairfax Street Wood Treaters in Northwest Jacksonville is one of 11 local Superfund sites, so named for the fund created to pay for their massive cleanup costs.
Fairfax is located in the middle of a densely populated residential neighborhood and right next to two elementary schools – Susie Tolbert and RV Daniels.
Inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency visited each Superfund site in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina before and after Hurricane Irma.
They say after the storm, just three showed signs of possible offsite contamination. One was the Fairfax site.
An initial assessment noted, “Due to heavy rain, some runoff concerns were identified at an on-site retention point and a washout underneath some site fencing. Samples were collected from the pond to determine whether contamination issues are present ...”
Those test results were not immediately provided to First Coast News. However, EPA did send a subsequent statement that their samples, “did not indicate any significant issues at the site from Hurricane Irma.”
The statement continues, “A surface water sample collected after the hurricane showed concentrations lower than or similar to the surface water concentrations for multiple metals measured during the Remedial Investigation.”
It’s not clear when or where the samples were drawn, or what concentrations were found.
None of that is reassuring to Syd O’Neill, whose three children live toddling distance from the vacant site. She calls the Fairfax site the “trash pile,” and says it is a source of rats and strange odors.
“I don’t send them over there,” she says of her children. “A ball might roll over there, but I’ll go get it. Ain’t no telling what kind of contamination is in there.”
Today the 12.5-acre site property empty. But from 1980 to 2010 it was a busy industrial site used to treat utility poles with chemical preservatives. The process polluted the soil and groundwater -- both on site and off -- with arsenic, chromium and copper.
When the business closed in June 2010, EPA conducted an emergency cleanup, excavating tons of polluted soil from nearby residential properties and the Susie Tolbert Elementary playground.
Monique Beavers’ daughter is in the 5th grade at Susie Tolbert, and says she has long worried about contamination. “I know it's kind of polluted, because it’s by the school and behind it, so it’s kind of bad.”
Another mother, who only gave her first name, Danielle, used to live across from the site. She has since moved to the Eastside, but her daughter attends Susie Tolbert. “They said it was all kinds of toxins and things back there, from I guess just draining off. So we never let our kids go back there and play.”
A risk assessment conducted prior to the storm pointed to flooding as a contamination risk for adjacent properties, as well as Moncrief Creek, which flows to Trout River, and ultimately to the St. Johns River.
EPA noted a long-term cleanup solution is planned. But residents say after 7 years, cleanup is overdue.
“If the hurricane really would have done some bad, bad damage over here, no telling if it would have flooded, what we would have gotten over here. says O’Neill, hoisting her 15-month-old son AJ on her hip.
“I think they should clean it up -- make something out of it. Something safe.”
First Coast News also asked EPA about the Kerr McGee Superfund site, which is a former pesticide manufacturing plant located on the St Johns River. EPA officials say the property was waterlogged and flooded by Irma, but say they found "no significant issues during inspection."
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