EPA tests soil in South Patrick Shores, in wake of cancer cluster concerns
SOUTH PATRICK SHORES, Fla. – The nation's top environmental cops arrived on the Space Coast this week with X-ray soil sensors in hand to dig for signs of any chemicals or metals left behind by the Air Force or Army over the last seven decades, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
"There was a huge chunk of metal down there," said Sandra Sullivan, referring to a hole in her back yard where U.S. Environmental Protection Agency workers had been digging. She lent them her shovel, as well as her knowledge of what she's already dug up in her yard over the past several months.
EPA confirmed that it had excavated Sullivan's yard in South Patrick Shores and took soil samples to test for chemicals and metals. An EPA spokesperson also said that the agency is developing a plan for similar sampling in a few months at an old suspected dump site just south of Patrick Air Force Base.
"It's really a screening assessment," said Cathy Amoroso, National Priorities List Coordinator for the EPA in Atlanta. "That is one of the first steps to determine whether the site would be eligible for Superfund cleanup," Amoroso said, referring to the federal cleanup program.
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But Amoroso also added that inclusion of the South Patrick Shores area in the Superfund program is unlikely, because the fund is intended for the nation's most severe contamination sites.
"I don't know that it was the military's site or not," Amoroso said of the area south of the base.
“The SI (site inspection) will determine whether the Agency will expand the investigation,” EPA officials told FLORIDA TODAY Friday via email. “At this point, we have not established that a release of hazardous substances has occurred. EPA is developing a sampling plan. No decision has been made yet regarding number or location of environmental samples.”
EPA officials said soil sampling and screening for contaminants in Sullivan’s yard on Feb. 26 and Feb. 27 “noted no readings of concern.”
“On both days, no VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) were detected during screening operations,” EPA said.
But EPA officials also said they plan to return to Sullivan’s yard in a few months, when warmer temperatures are more conducive to vapors being released from soils and groundwater.
Residents near the base fear health risks from military waste buried in the area as far back as the end of World War II.
Sullivan's been digging up old military junk in her backyard for months.
Cancer concerns in the area reemerged here after the military found high levels of chemicals linked to firefighting foams at Patrick Air Force Base and a Jacksonville-based oncologist began asking why areas around the base have so many cancer cases.
Julie Greenwalt, a Satellite Beach native, cancer survivor and radiation oncologist working in Jacksonville, identified at least 45 cancer casesdiagnosed under age 40 since 2010. All, including Greenwalt, either graduated Satellite High School or grew up in the area.
Greenwalt and residents' concerns prompted state and federal health officials to reopen a previous investigation of the South Patrick Shores area in the early 1990s that found "no apparent public heath hazard."
Media coverage at the time cited a dozen cases of Hodgkin’s disease near Patrick from 1967 to 1983, between Pineda Causeway and Sea Park Boulevard.
But the 1992 report by the U.S. Department of Health's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that the Satellite Beach ZIP code area actually had fewer cases of cancer than would be expected, in comparison to statewide averages. The report also concluded that the available data did not show people were being exposed to contamination that would be expected to cause adverse health effects.
But the report did note workers who excavated for homes there in the 1950s found a dump containing vehicle batteries and several crushed barrels and two "reportedly filled with oil." Workers removed the debris before construction, the report said.
Sullivan has found, among other things, an old practice bomb, radio equipment, a big chunk of metal with a battery terminal on it, an old broken, corroded tube, and a piece of aluminum from an airplane. She's paying $1,110 to conduct her own soil tests for pesticides, petroleum residuals, volatile organic compounds, metals, as well as explosives, to compare with EPA's findings.
Recent federal and state commitments to re-examine groundwater contamination in the South Patrick Shores and Satellite Beach area culminates years of cajoling by local residents and activists, which in September drew a visit from famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich.
Last year, the military released data showing high levels of fluorinated compounds in groundwater at Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The high levels were attributed to decades of prior use of firefighting foams, which the base quit using two years ago.
The two fluorinated chemicals of most concern — perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — were widely used in fire extinguishing foams, including at Patrick Air Force Base until a few years ago. The chemicals were also used in non-stick cooking pan coatings and a litany of consumer and industrial products. Their use has been phased out but the compounds remain in the environment for decades and are not regulated.
Levels of PFOS plus PFOA at Patrick were up to 4.3 million parts per trillion, while levels at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station were 53,000 parts per trillion.
Concerns about the chemicals prompted Brevard Public Schools to test tap water and Cocoa Beach and Satellite Beach to test groundwater and wastewater.
The school tests found trace levels of PFBA, a breakdown product of other fluorinated compounds used in carpets, stain-resistant fabric and paper food packaging. The chemical also was used for manufacturing photographic film.
Late last year, tests found fluorinated chemicals lurking in the soil and water throughout Brevard County. The tests revealed the chemicals in irrigation wells countywide and in the Indian River Lagoon.
The discovery further complicated the mystery of what's behind a rash of local cancers near Patrick Air Force Base. Their widespread presence also raises questions about what the level of concern ought to be throughout Brevard.
County officials now await word from state and federal agencies on what, if anything, to do about the widespread contamination of the compounds.
Sullivan worries about what chemical plumes might be underneath the concrete slab of her house and her neighbors' homes, with potential for vapors entering through cracks in the slabs. She at least knows some of what's buried in her yard.
"How many other people don't know what's in the ground?" Sullivan said.
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