Kennedy Has His Attention Focused on a State-Regulated Pollution Problem in St. Petersburg

News Channel 8

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spends a lot of time on environmental causes ranging from global warming to Hudson River pollution. Now Kennedy has his attention focused on a state-regulated pollution problem in St. Petersburg.

"They ought to be saying to these people you're on a train track and there's a train heading for you. We don't know if it's gonna hit you, but you ought to know about it," Kennedy said.

Nine years ago, Time magazine named Kennedy as one of its "Heroes for the Planet." Some St. Petersburg homeowners who live near the Raytheon defense plant at 1501 72nd St. N. would be happy if he could just do something to spur the cleanup of their neighborhood.

Kennedy blames Florida's Department of Environmental Protection for failing to take meaningful action 17 years after the first discovery of toxic waste under the defense plant later purchased by Raytheon. "This agency has completely abandoned its obligation to the public and abdicated it in favor of becoming essentially a hand puppet for the industry it is meant to regulate," Kennedy said.

Thursday afternoon, Kennedy, who is one of the lead lawyers in a pending class action lawsuit against Raytheon, toured the neighborhoods around the plant for a first-hand look at the groundwater contamination problem that now vexes homeowners who worry about their health and their property values.

They're concerned because a plume of toxic chemicals such as dioxane, trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride has spread under their neighborhood as far as half a mile from the Raytheon property.

"Get a Raytheon executive to come and live in this house and drink this water and have their children play in the sprinklers for a couple months and see if any of them will agree to do that," Kennedy said.

The house on 12th Avenue he was referring to belongs to 70-year-old Cathy Swerediuk, who says both she and her husband have suffered from unexplained brain tumors.

"There are people here who are sick, and you can't say the water had nothing to do with it," Swerediuk said after Kennedy stopped to look at a test well on the street in front of her house.

Swerediuk told Kennedy that Raytheon says it found only minimal traces of chemical contamination in her irrigation well, but she's not taking any chances. "We all used to use our sprinklers. We don't use them anymore."

During his walking tour around the now-empty defense plant, Kennedy became curious about a dead bird in a ditch that runs along the Pinellas Trail adjacent to the rear of the plant. Records filed with the state indicate under previous ownership decades ago, plant workers dumped chemicals into the ground at the rear of the defense plant, a stone's throw from that location.

Kennedy questions why Raytheon hasn't tested water in the ditch sediments or examined the fish he observed living in it, for evidence of pollution.

"The chemical will tend to isolate in their pancreas and their flesh and their fat. It's not just a snapshot, but it gives you a panoramic of what's coming through the creek," Kennedy said, "It's a very easy thing, a very obvious thing to do."

During a briefing by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council's Agency on Bay Management on Aug. 14, Raytheon's Environmental Manager Bob Luhrs said his company hasn't tested the ditch because it's normally dry except for occasional rainwater.

"Not only is it not dry, but it's never dry," Kennedy said, "because if it was ever dry you wouldn't see these huge populations of fish in it."

Kennedy also criticizes the findings of a Raytheon report released by the DEP on Tuesday that establishes a perimeter around the known plume of "chemicals of concern" in this pollution case, but also shows 40 private irrigation wells with detectable contamination as far as a quarter mile beyond that perimeter in the neighborhoods surrounding Raytheon.

"Their argument that the plume is only this big, but now we've found that people outside the plume are also contaminated," Kennedy said. "Clearly that's also part of the plume that's coming from Raytheon. Anybody with common sense could see that."

DEP staff members are still reviewing Raytheon's latest report, and agency spokeswoman Pamala Vazquez said they couldn't yet comment on the plume or other findings. Those findings include a June 17 test showing small traces of seven chemicals in a deep ditch along Farragut Drive that drains directly into Boca Ciega Bay.

Raytheon spokesman Jon Kasle says none of those seven chemicals exceeds state surface water standards. Kasle said Raytheon is also confident about the plume's boundaries. He didn't make clear what responsibility the company will take for the 40 wells with detectable chemical contamination outside of that boundary.

During a town meeting in July, DEP District Director Barbara Getzoff indicated that two health studies have shown no one is at risk from the pollution. Getzoff said even if small amounts of pollution were flowing into Boca Ciega Bay there is no pathway to exposure for people — therefore no risk — because no one eats shellfish out of the Bay.

During his visit to St. Petersburg on Thursday, Kennedy asked a reporter, "How can she know that people aren't eating those oysters?"