Decades later, EPA still working on cleanup of Florida’s “Mount Dioxin”

Pensacola wood treatment plant just one of 92 Superfund sites around the Sunshine State

January 6, 2022 7:00 am

The soil mound cover is inspected at the Escambia Wood Treating site in Pensacola, FL, based on a 2004 report. The case became a Superfund site. (EPA OIG photo). Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Florida has lots of communities with a history that is — oh, what’s a good word? Let’s say “unusual.”

Sweetwater, for instance, was founded by a troupe of Russian circus midgets whose bus broke down. Sanibel’s drive to incorporate as a city was led by a trio of retired CIA agents, one of whom became the first mayor. Nalcrest, was built by and for retired letter carriers, so dogs are, of course, banned.

Or take my hometown of Pensacola. It’s one of the great also-rans of history. It was founded before St. Augustine, but a storm smashed the Spanish colonists’ supply ships, chasing them away. That’s why St. Augustine, not Pensacola, gets all the tourists who want to visit the oldest continuously occupied city in North America.

Then, in 1861, the Civil War almost started there. Confederate troops planned to attack the Union-held fort guarding the mouth of the harbor. Once again, though, a storm interfered, forcing the Rebels to postpone their bombardment. That’s how Fort Sumter, S.C., made it into the history books, instead of Fort Pickens in Florida.

But Pensacola does have a couple of modern claims to notoriety. It was the first place where a doctor carrying out abortions was murdered by someone claiming to be “pro-life.” And it is the site of one of the worst Superfund sites in the nation, one that ranks up there just behind Love Canal and Times Beach.

We live in an era of “supers,” as comic-book superhero movies from Marvel and DC rake in big bucks. But this super is far more vital to saving our lives and our planet than Iron Man and Batman and all their gadgets put together.

Jimmy Carter. Official portrait, 1977. 39th President of the United States. Credit: Wikipedia.

“Superfund” is a fairly benign nickname for something that is both scary and necessary. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act was passed by Congress in 1980 and signed into law by then-President Jimmy Carter.

The law gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the authority to clean up hazardous waste sites that can’t be handled by the polluter. What made it work is a tax on polluting industries to pay for the expensive cleanups – hence the nickname “Superfund.”

Across the country, the EPA is now dealing with 1,571 Superfund sites. New Jersey has 114, more than any other state. Florida doesn’t lag far behind with 92.

Are you shocked by that? Jersey (in addition to being home of Bruce Springsteen and “The Sopranos”) is known for being chockful of industrial pollution. You picture a Jersey skyline and it’s full of smokestacks. But Florida? We’re full of pretty beaches, glittering waves, soft sea breezes.

Where did all those Superfund sites come from?

Turns out Florida has been the home for plenty of polluters who were allowed to operate out of sight of the tourists. Like the folks in Jersey, though, some of our industries were careless about handling their toxic waste. Oops! Call the EPA!

The Superfund site I want to talk to you about is pretty nasty on several levels. Hold your nose while I tell you the tangled tale of the Escambia Wood Treating Company.

The reason it was so bad wasn’t just because of the cancer-causing chemicals involved, or where they were spilled. It was bad because the EPA itself screwed up the cleanup. The agency ended up having to relocate about 400 households from the neighborhoods around the site.

That’s how it became, as the Pensacola News Journal reported last week, “the third-largest permanent Superfund relocation in U.S. history. Twenty four years later, the final phase of that cleanup effort has secured funding to finally be finished.”

This is one time where I think Pensacola was happy it did not wind up ranked at No. 1.

Creosote and “critical race theory”

From 1942 to 1982, the Escambia Wood Treatment Company produced power poles, railroad ties, pilings and other wood products coated with creosote and PCBs to make them last. Although it was an industrial operation, the factory was in the middle of the city and surrounded by homes.

“A lot of the homes around there belonged to people who worked there,” explained Chips Kirschenfeld, the natural resource department manager for Escambia County, which now owns the site.

The residents had little choice when it came to buying homes there, explained Frances Dunham, who was a community activist at the time. That area was one of the few neighborhoods in the ‘50s and ‘60s where banks would lend money to Black people to buy houses, she explained.

If you are still wondering what “critical race theory” might be, here’s a good example. It shows how it’s not a theory but a fact.

The Black families who lived in that neighborhood felt hemmed in by factories and the railroad track. Pensacola is one of the Sunshine State’s rainiest cities, and during storms, toxic stuff from the Escambia Treatment site would wash over into people’s yards.

Escambia Treatment was no fly-by-night outfit, either. One of the owners happened to be Pensacola’s mayor from 1967 to 1971. But political influence is no guarantee of corporate responsibility – quite the opposite, in fact.

All the managers were white and all the workers Black. The employees knew they were being exposed to harmful chemicals that sometimes ate away their shoes in a matter of weeks, but their choices were limited. One later told an NPR reporter: “It was horrible for us all, but we all had to try to make a living.”

The U.S. Capitol. Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

After Congress passed the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations in the 1970s, the company’s owners saw the writing on the wall. They filed for bankruptcy and abandoned the plant.

They left behind what Dunham described as “leaking drums, a lab full of broken equipment and open containers, an overturned electrical transformer, crumbling asbestos insulation around a boiler” – and something worse in the soil and water.

The owners had stored the site’s toxic waste – not just creosote and PCB’s, but also polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxins – in unlined pits on the site. Essentially, the workers had been ordered to pour the toxic waste into a hole in the ground. As often happens with holes in porous Florida, what was put in didn’t stay there.

A few years later, during an investigation of a Superfund site next door – yes, Pensacola has two Superfund sites adjacent to each other, the second one being a phosphate processing facility – regulators made an alarming discovery. The Escambia Wood site was full of contaminants too.

At first the EPA did not declare this a Superfund site. Instead, it was classified as a site in need of emergency cleanup, not unlike the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

That meant send workers to rush in right away, instead of holding meetings with the neighbors to inform them about what was happening. When former employees offered to point out areas of extreme contamination, Dunham said, one of the EPA coordinators – who called himself a “cowboy” — told them to get lost.

Instead, the EPA had crews in special contamination suits start digging up the soil, the sludge and everything else. They planned to incinerate it, but at first they were just piling it up. Before long, they had excavated 250,000 cubic yards of toxic soil, creating what locals dubbed “Mount Dioxin.”

In flat Florida, soaring 60-foot-high Mount Dioxin became the most prominent feature of the city’s landscape. Why, it was even taller than the 50-foot Confederate monument downtown! But it was just as vivid a symbol of bigotry.

Carol Browner as EPA Administrator during the Clinton administration. Credit: Wikipedia.

The EPA, at this time, was headed up by a native Floridian, Carol Browner, who now works for a powerful Washington law firm that advises clients on how to deal with federal regulations. I tried to get a comment from her about all this. Perhaps she was busy advising her clients because I am still awaiting a response.

As the work on Mount Dioxin proceeded, no one paid much attention to the homes near the plant, Dunham said.

“You had guys in moon suits within a few feet of kids playing in their backyards,” Dunham told me.

By her count, 925 people lived within one-quarter mile of the site, and within a mile there were five day-care centers, one hospital and three public schools. When clouds of dust blew off Mount Dioxin, guess where it went.

One resident, a former teacher named Margaret Williams who became president of Citizens Against Toxic Exposure, said, “I think they’re trying to kill us.”

Moving away from the mountain

Angry and fearful, the residents around the site began holding their own meetings. They complained of health-related problems: acute respiratory distress, nosebleeds, headaches, nausea, skin rashes. They discussed the symptoms and frequency of cancer among their families.

The EPA cowboy was inclined to ignore them, Dunham said, but a report by one state agency said, “Individuals within one-quarter mile of the site may have been exposed to air-borne contaminants.”

Williams’ group and other activists began pushing for the EPA to buy up the houses around the site and move everyone to safety. At first the agency was reluctant to take such a drastic step.

But a month before a presidential election that pitted then-President Bill Clinton against Sen. Bob Dole, the woman who organized all the Love Canal homeowners, Lois Gibbs, bought a full page ad in USA Today’s Florida edition. The ad featured photos of children from around the Escambia Wood site, along with a quote from a Clinton speech: “No child should ever have to live near a hazardous waste site.”

Surprise! Suddenly the EPA was all in favor of relocating the residents from their pollution-tainted homes – exactly five years after it had begun digging up all the polluted soil.

The relocation went about as well as you might expect when the federal government buys up people’s houses and then scatters them all over. There were complaints about the prices paid and the alternatives offered. Some refused to sell until they got a good deal and accused the EPA of trying to intimidate them.

And then the money ran out.

This had been a Democratic fiasco up to this point, but now the Republicans messed things up. The law creating the Superfund tax expired in 1995, and the Republicans then controlling Congress turned up their noses at Clinton’s efforts to reinstate a tax on their corporate allies.

Then Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, declined to even try. With no more funding going into the Superfund, the pace of all cleanups slowed to a crawl.

Meanwhile, despite all the soil and sludge that had been removed from the Escambia Wood site, the EPA hadn’t even touched the groundwater, which was contaminated as well.

Fortunately. the recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill put $1 billion into Superfund projects, which the EPA announced it would use to complete the cleanups at Escambia Wood and four dozen other sites that had been idle. The bipartisan bill that President Biden signed also revived the Superfund polluter tax.

Kirschenfeld, the county natural resources director, told me he expects the final cleanup of the groundwater to take several years. In the meantime, though, the county will begin picking which businesses get to build on the now-vacant site.

“The redevelopment of that site is something the county really wants,” he said. “We’re fielding calls about it every day.” But deed restrictions limit them in one important way, he said: “No residential uses are allowed.”

I just wanted to tell you this story to remind you of a few things. One, which Kirschenfeld pointed out to me, is that several determined women were the leaders in getting this problem fixed.

Another is that this is just one Superfund site. There are 91 more in Florida, each one with its own story of official incompetence, political influence and corporate greed.

So the next time you hear some Florida politician complain about how “environmental red tape” is getting in the way of businesses doing whatever they want, remember this story. And then tell ‘em if they don’t like it, they should move to New Jersey.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.