Ron Cunningham: Is this really the best we can do with the Superfund site?


Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 6:33 p.m.

In a meeting room at Santa Fe College's downtown center is posted this inspirational American Indian proverb:

“If we wonder often, the gift of knowledge will come.”

That turned out to be a prophetic observation to hang over the heads of the handful of folks who gathered in that room Monday evening to prepare for what would be their last-gasp attempt to have an impact on the fate of Gainesville's Superfund site.

Some of them had been wondering for decades what the Environmental Protection Agency would do to protect their community, their homes and their families from the toxic legacy that is the old Cabot-Koppers wood treatment facility.

And finally they know.

Not very much, some of them say.

But probably the best we can hope for, others counter.

Really? Is this all there is?

After 30 years of legal wrangling and public hand-wringing over the health and welfare of residents in the adjoining Stephen Foster neighborhood and the integrity of Gainesville's ground water supply? That's it?

Beazer East, a multibillion-dollar corporation owned by a multibillion-dollar corporation, will seal up most of the contaminated soil, dig up a little bit more of it, pump out some contaminated water and …

… and we're supposed to hope for the best?

I love what Chris Bird, the county's environmental protection chief, said about the consent decree that the EPA signed off on with Beazer East:

“I think just having the scope of work as decided on implemented without any further delays, that is probably the most we can get out of this,” Bird told county commissioners. “I think that's why we believe we have to be careful what we ask for during this comment period. I'm not going to recommend anything that's going to kill the deal.”

And maybe that's a valid concern. It's not as though the feds have been especially solicitous of Gainesville's interests at any point in its years-long Superfund dance with Beazer East.

If our federal environmental “watchdog” were looking out for Gainesville, it might be holding out for the removal and incineration of toxic soils and other measures designed to protect the public health and our shallow aquifer.

It might be pushing Beazer East to buy contaminated residential properties whose owners have little prospect of ever selling their tainted homes for anything like fair market value.

But that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead, the EPA is settling for a cap-and-seal job that, at $90 million or so, will barely make a dent in Beazer East's bottom line.

“This is not a cleanup, it's a cover-up,” said Maria Parsons, one of several property owners who lined up to plead for environmental justice during a U.S. Department of Justice-sponsored public hearing at Stephen Foster Elementary School on Wednesday night. “Gainesville deserves a real cleanup.”

It's hard to argue with that. And frankly, it would have been nice if some of our local elected officials — many of whom were in the audience Wednesday — had gotten up and made the same point.

“There is no cleanup if there is no consent decree,” said Caroline Philson, EPA attorney.Without it, she insisted, the EPA can't hold the corporation's “feet to the fire.”

You call that a fire?

But it's not over yet. The consent decree still has to be approved by a U.S. district court judge, right here in Gainesville.

The public comment period on the deal runs through March 15 (comments can be emailed to pubcomment-ees.enrd@usdoj.gov).

The concerns of the people who will have to live with this toxic nightmare for decades yet to come may fall on deaf ears at the EPA. But perhaps a local judge won't be as eager to sign off on this cap-and-seal deal.

Maybe the judge will agree with those contrarians who insist that Gainesville deserves a real cleanup.

Ron Cunningham is the former editorial page editor for The Sun.

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