City makes headway with Koppers health study


Published: Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 8:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 11:39 p.m.

University of Florida faculty members will be working on a long-sought health study of residents who live in the area around the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site, where activists claim dioxins and other pollutants that have been coming from the site for decades have caused cancer, birth defects and death.

Calling it a "glimmer of hope in an otherwise frustrating and dark path that we've been marching down," City Commissioner Lauren Poe announced the university's participation at a meeting Thursday, saying faculty in the College of Public Health and Health Professions are willing to help plan the study.

Residents and advocates for a stringent cleanup like Joe Prager considered the announcement a victory because the health concerns around the site, in Prager's words, had been "previously more or less ignored."

No timetable or particulars for the study were set, but Poe said he was encouraged about getting anyone on board.

"That's really monumental news when it looked like it was not going to happen," he said.

After he and Assistant City Manager Fred Murry met with the college's dean, Michael Perri, last week, two faculty members said they would help conduct the study.

Residents have long called for a comprehensive health study of the area, and Poe said citizens Bob Palmer and Ky Gress pushed the university to lend its expertise.

In an interview, Poe said agencies like the Florida Department of Health were reluctant to conduct the study and one of the few partners that could make it work was the university.

"We want a chance to try to put something together that would be valid and accurate, and that's what we need their help with," he said. "It's just another one of the pieces of the Koppers puzzle."

Both Poe and Palmer, the chairman of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Advisory Committee, said the study won't be easy to do and will need a large set of sample data.

And while they said it should have been conducted years ago, they maintain it's just as important to get it done today.

"There's a lot of concern in the community," Palmer said, "and there have been a number of reports of symptoms, cancers, various diseases reported by people living near the site but no comprehensive study."

While Robert Pearce, the president of the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Association, hasn't been pushing for the health study as much as he has been advocating for improvements to stormwater control on Kopper's site and other clean-up issues, he said a scientifically sound study is "most welcome."

"It might help to determine the real effects that contaminants have had on a percentage of the neighborhood," Pearce said.

Since the 1980s, the federal government has included the former Cabot Carbon/Koppers plants, which secreted various pollutants for decades near North Main Street and 23rd Avenue, on its list of the most contaminated sites in the country.

In April, a group of seven residents filed a $500 million lawsuit against the companies responsible for the former Koppers wood-treatment plant: Koppers Inc., Beazer East Inc., and Cabot Corp., which had a charcoal-production plant on North Main Street where a Winn-Dixie plaza is now.

In the fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrapped up the comment period after announcing its preferred plan for the Koppers site, calling for, among other measures, leaving the most contaminated soil on the Koppers site in place while capping it and treating it with chemicals. The plan angered residents, who said the EPA was kowtowing to those responsible for the Koppers clean-up.

A Beazer representative did not immediately return a telephone message left Thursday evening.

Future aside, Prager said the health study was a step toward learning about the site's past and present impacts.

"There have been a lot of reports of disease, … pet deaths and birth defects," he said. "With the University of Florida scientists on board, we can get a health study that won't be imputed later."

Contact Chad Smith at 338-3104 or chad.smith@gvillesun.com.

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