A section of the low-income Parramore neighborhood may soon have the dubious honor of making the federal Superfund site after tests revealed high levels of cancer-causing agents leaching into the Florida aquifer.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced at a Sept. 10 meeting that polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, released decades ago by a coal gasification plant, have spread farther than anyone anticipated.
The coal plant operated between 1888 and 1958 in the 600 block of W. Robinson, about 100 yards from the brand new, city-backed Nap Ford Community School.
EPA officials say schoolchildren should be safe but advised further tests to determine the extent of the pollution. "We found some contamination," says Mark J. Fite, an EPA regional project manager. "But we don't know the whole story. We have to do a lot more studying."
Soil contamination was a big issue with the school site prior to building. Three experts, including an Orlando city employee, said in 2001 that the site was safe.
"I really don't have much to say," says Nap Ford principal Jeraldine Perkins. "We believe the reports from last summer are accurate."
School critics worry children will come into contact with contaminated soil at a new playground. They're also concerned school officials won't tell parents about the EPA's findings.
"We all know this [school] was a political decision made in haste," says Phil Cowherd, a Parramore property owner who attended last week's meeting. "The whole thing is damn suspicious."
Fite says the EPA wants to remain neutral. "I don't want to give the impression that the EPA is on either side of the issue," he says.
The EPA has monitored the site since 1989. The agency became alarmed after new studies revealed the hydrocarbons, a by-product of tar decomposition, have seeped deeper into the aquifer. The Orlando Utilities Commission maintains a well about a mile from the site.
Fite expects to complete a report on the site within 18 months. Three companies that used the gasification plant -- Florida Power Corporation, Teco Gas and Atlantic Gas and Light -- will pay for the studies and eventual cleanup.
Florida has 54 Superfund sites, three in Orange County. Congress began the Superfund program in 1980 as a means to control abandoned waste sites.