SATELLITE BEACH, Fla. - Erin Brockovich's "water guy" vowed Monday he and the famed environmental activist would stand by this small city to help unearth any buried hazards or water pollution that could be increasing the area's cancer risk.
They don't have all the answers, he said, but they'll push to get them. They've seen these sorts of scenarios countless times before, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
"Everybody has the same problems, everybody handles them differently," said Bob Bowcock, a California water consultant who helps Brockovich with environmental investigations.
Bowcock led a roundtable discussion Monday with local, state and Patrick Air Force Base officials in a closed-door meeting at City Hall about recent and past drinking water and groundwater pollution concerns. Bowcock and Brockovich help communities conduct similar environmental investigations nationwide. Brockovich and Bowcock plan to return to Satellite Beach on Sept. 29, Bowcock said, to hold a community meeting about the local cancer concerns. Details are pending.
At Monday’s meeting, Satellite Beach Mayor Frank Catino denied access to about a dozen cancer survivors and concerned citizens at the council chambers door. Catino told them it was a private meeting, because fewer than three elected city officials were there at any given time.
He and council members Mindy Gibson and Mark Brimer rotated in and out of the council chambers to avoid breaking state open meeting law, which requires public notice and public access if more than two elected city officials are present. City Manager Courtney Barker said the city kept invites limited to keep the meeting professional and focused. "There is a level of professionalism that's being lost," Barker said.
One invitee, Kathy Marler, whose son, Ricky, was only seven when he was diagnosed with t-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare, fast-growing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, worries about her water and home. Three years after her son's diagnosis, as he recovers, she wants answers about the safety of what they drink and breathe in their home. She asked Bowcock about why cancer-causing chemicals such as chlorate and other disinfection byproducts, such as trihalomethanes, are often significantly higher in beachside drinking water samples than mainland samples.
"My belief is that children's cancer is like the canary in the mine," Marler said.
Bowcock said he recently discussed those issues with Melbourne utility officials, that he has ideas about what's causing the problems, and that he will continue to help the utility work through them.
"They are extremely legitimate," Bowcock said of Marler's concerns.
Florida State Rep. Thad Altman, R-Indialantic, told Bowcock of how Melbourne's drinking water several decades ago had levels of trihalomethane that measured among the worst in the nation. But upgrades to the treatment process and supply vastly improved the water quality, state data shows. "It was because we were drinking swamp water," Altman said of Lake Washington, a primary supply for the utility. Now the city mixes the lake water with much cleaner groundwater. But problems with disinfection byproducts have persisted for years, state data shows.
Bowcock said any buried substances that contain volatile organic compounds (such as oils, gasoline and industrial solvents) have potential to vaporize and enter homes through old, cracked concrete house slabs or pipes.
He also said state health officials are very likely to declare that there is no statistically significant cluster of cancers in the Satellite Beach area, as state health departments nationwide often do.
"As far as the cancer cluster, it ain't going to happen," Bowcock said, adding that the community should focus on finding and solving contamination problems, anyway.
Erin Brockovich led a 1993 lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric, which inspired the award-winning 2000 film, Erin Brockovich. PG&E was implicated for contaminating drinking water in the town of Hinkley, California. But Bowcock assured Monday that he and Brockovich are getting involved to solve the problem, not to sue.
"Erin and I do not sue the federal government," Bowcock said, adding that they've never sued a water utility, either.
Local cancer concerns reemerged in the Satellite Beach area after Dr. Julie Clift Greenwalt, a Jacksonville oncologist, cancer survivor and Satellite High School grad, began questioning whether local environmental exposures contributed to her rare cancer (of the appendix) and the cancers of about 20 fellow SHS grads. She began corresponding with Brockovich and compiling local cancer cases. Clift Greenwalt has identified at least 54 cases of people who either went to SHS or grew up in the area, all diagnosed under age 40, all since 2010.
Concerns had centered on groundwater contamination from fire extinguishing foams that Patrick Air Force Base for years used for fire training at the base, until two years ago. Recent city groundwater tests at three wells also found fluorinated chemicals linked to the foams (as well as other sources), as did recent groundwater and wastewater tests by the city of Cocoa Beach.
In response to the concerns, Brevard Public Schools tested tap water at its 13 beachside schools, finding nine schools on Melbourne's drinking water system tested at trace levels of a fluorinated compound called perfluorobutanoic acid, or PFBA. Followup tests at three schools found similar levels, which city utility officials have said. None of the other four beachside schools on Cocoa's water system had the chemical in their tap water.
PFBA is 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.
Stel Bailey, a Brevard County resident, cancer survivor and advocate, expressed disappointment that she and about a dozen others who tried to attend Monday's meeting were stopped at the door. She coordinated independent testing for the fluorinated chemicals in canals and residences in the Satellite Beach area, results she'd planned to present Monday.
"We weren't going to be distracting," Bailey said. "They're shunning their community."
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