Monday, January 07, 2019

Emails show Florida officials delayed informing rural residents about potentially contaminated well water

Marion County, Florida (Wikipedia map)
State officials waited four months to notify some rural Florida residents near Ocala that their private wells could be contaminated with potentially harmful chemicals, according to emails obtained by the Miami Herald, Samantha Gross and Elizabeth Koh report for the newspaper.

Preliminary tests from the state Department of Environmental Protection indicated that wells in three clusters had elevated levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), chemicals used in fire retardants, which studies suggest could cause cancer and other health problems, Gross and Koh report. One site was near the Florida State Fire College in Ocala, the second was near a Marion County fire station, and the third was near a mining operation owned by Lhoist North America.

In August, the DEP confirmed that flame retardants containing PFOS and PFOA had been used at the Fire College in the past, and in early September they told those at college to drink only bottled water. It wasn't until late October, though, that the DEP discussed notifying the rest of the community. The mining company was notified on Nov. 6. Linda Lawson, who lives half a mile from the Fire College, said she was not notified about the problem until Nov. 5. That evening, a Marion County Department of Health official came to her door with a few cases of bottled water and told her not to drink from her decades-old well anymore because of unsafe chemical levels, Gross and Koh report.

State workers have continued to bring the Lawsons jugs of drinking water and on Nov. 28 installed a filter on their well, though the family was instructed to keep drinking bottled water for two more months until more tests could be conducted. But their next-door neighbor, Miriam Flores, says she wasn't informed about the problem, and that when she and other neighbors called the local health department, someone there told her the issue was "nothing." A script sent to health department employees, which the Herald obtained, instructed employees to tell concerned residents that short-term exposure to PFOS and PFOA are unlikely to be harmful and that residents need not change their daily routines or find an alternate water supply, Gross and Koh report. After the Herald began asking officials about the testing, they finally tested Flores' water on Dec. 11 and informed her on Dec. 28 that her water had more than 20 times the acceptable level of chemical contamination. The state has still not installed a filter on her well.

"Les Beitsch, a former deputy secretary in the Florida Department of Health, speculates that health officials delayed notifying Lawson and the two other well users because of the impending election," Gross and Koh report. Beitsch "was effectively fired in November, he said, because he pushed back against the idea of any delay in notifying well-water users of the problem." Beitsch is a physician who is a department chair at Florida State University's College of Medicine.

A Florida DOH spokesperson told the Herald that they had "immediately notified well owners of results" and have "worked diligently to obtain the necessary permissions to conduct additional private well sampling." The DOH scheduled an Oct. 16 open house to inform the public and the Fire College about what was happening with the water supply, but was rescheduled for Dec. 4 because of Hurricane Michael, Gross and Koh report.

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