History books are written by those in power. The countless stories from the perspective of marginalized community members don’t always make it into history books and environmental justice was likely not a topic you learned about in school. Learning about these incidents of water injustice help us to better understand not only the history of our state, but how we can ensure a more equitable future for everyone.
The following two stories are certainly not the full picture of water injustice in the state of Florida. Instead, they reflect systematic patterns of racism, greed, and neglect. They reveal the fractures of paradise that exist outside Florida’s manicured golf courses, theme parks, and gated neighborhoods; they tell a different tale of our sunshine state.
Tallevast: A Poisoned Community
Tallevast is a small, predominantly Black, unincorporated town that lies between Sarasota and Manatee counties. While neighboring communities were enjoying time on the golf course, for decades, residents here have been exposed to toxic waste oozing from the soil and groundwater.
In 1957, a small industrial plant set up shop in the middle of Tallevast. In the early 1960s, the operation became focused on the metal beryllium and took on a new name: American Beryllium Company (ABC). ABC milled and ground down beryllium at the plant, a process that results in many hazardous byproducts, including toxic beryllium dust. Despite the risk, residents of Tallevast hoped that the plant would bring new economic opportunities, and many community members became custodial workers at the plant. The custodial workers likely experienced the highest levels of exposure to the toxic byproducts at the facility, carrying toxic beryllium dust home to their families and around their community.
As far back as 1980, ABC’s internal reports revealed many problems with the plant, leading to increased exposure of toxic byproducts to the Tallevast community. The ABC facility sat atop containers the size of small cars that stored liquid, toxic waste, which were supposed to be regularly shipped off-site to chemical waste facilities. For unknown reasons – possibly neglect – the waste often wasn’t shipped off-site and remained onsite in underground storage. In 1996, Lockheed Martin acquired the plant and hired Tetra Tech to conduct environmental and facility assessments. In 2000, Tetra Tech and Lockheed Martin revealed to the Manatee County Environmental Action Commission that the facility’s toxic waste storage containers were leaching out industrial solvents and metal wastewater, contaminating the soil and groundwater of the community. No one in the town of Tallevast was notified. Based on reports of the concentrations of contaminants in the Tallevast community, it is estimated that the American Beryllium Co. plant had been contaminating the soil and groundwater since it began its operation almost four decades before.
The ABC plant lies across the street from the Sarasota International Airport, only a few miles away from the splendor of the famed Ringling Museum and luxurious golf courses. Right next door to these pictures of paradise was the contaminated community of Tallevast. As of 2000, many Tallevast community members still relied on well water for everyday needs, leaving them at increased exposure to the harmful contaminants from the nearby plant. Four years after Lockheed Martin submitted the findings of contamination to local and state officials, the residents of Tallevast were finally notified of the toxic waste they had been exposed to for decades. Independent reports sponsored by community members revealed that the occurrence of cancer among Tallevast residents was 85% higher than the state average of African Americans. In 2005, a law was passed that mandates FDEP inform residents within 30 days of exposure to any environmental contamination. Unfortunately, it was too late for Tallevast, as it is estimated that the community’s soil and groundwater will remain contaminated for over 50 years.
The Fenholloway: A Sacrificed River
After WWII, Taylor County (in Florida’s Big Bend region) was struggling. The economy was tanking and led to a steady decline in population. Something needed to be done to correct course. The economy of Taylor County had always revolved around trees. At one time, the county housed the world’s largest logging camp and giant sawmills to match. In the 1930s, the county’s virgin timber was dwindling, and with it, the county lost many of its major sawmills. Landowners took notice and began the process of reforesting, learning about the new concept of “tree farming,” but with the closed down sawmills, there was no place to process the timber. The county officials had a solution: they would attract a pulpwood mill to solve their economic woes. But they’d also needed a way to dispose of the byproducts and chemicals that come with manufacturing pulpwood. They had a site in mind that was in close proximity to railway transportation, but it was next to the Fenholloway River, whose flow was not strong enough to assimilate the waste from the proposed pulp mill. The river is wide and sleepy, lined with towering palms. If deposited in the Fenholloway, the waste from the pulpwood mill would surely spoil the river.
In 1947, Taylor County requested that the Florida Legislature classify the Fenholloway River as an “industrial stream” to establish the county as a desirable home to new industrial development. The act states that any manufacturing or industrial plant in Taylor County, “is hereby empowered to discharge and deposit sewage, industrial and chemical wastes and effluents, or any of them, into the waters of the Fenholloway River and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico into which said river flows” (Laws of Florida, Chapter 24952-No. 1338, 1947).
Soon after the establishment of the new “industrial stream” distinction, Buckeye Cellulose Corporation, a subsidiary of Procter & Gamble, set up shop along the Fenholloway and began dumping millions of gallons of industrial waste into the river each day. At the time it was a deal the community was willing to make; they sacrificed a river in exchange for employment.
It wasn’t long before the community started noticing changes to the river. Chemicals in the industrial waste spurred algal blooms killing off fish. The first reports of contaminated water came in the 1960s but Procter & Gamble was quick to replace some local drinking wells to quell the growing concern. In the 1980s the company replaced 40 additional wells and put up the funds to extend city water lines to homes that reported contaminated water. In 1989, droves of citizens began showing up to the local Health Department explaining their water smelled putrid and was the color of coffee. Scientists for the state began conducting tests of the local drinking water and discovered that the mill’s industrial wastewater made up the majority of the Fenholloway’s water flow. To make it worse, during periods of drought, the wastewater seeped into the aquifer and quickly ended up in the drinking water. Ten miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, seagrass meadows were dying off because of the pollution. Something had to be done before the damage continued to spread out and degrade the coastal habitat and economies that relied on its health.
In the mid-90s, mill officials introduced the idea of building a pipeline that would carry waste from the mill out to the mouth of the river. Depositing the waste in the Fenholloway estuary fostered great concern of contaminants killing off plants and entering multiple levels of marine trophic levels. The mill insisted it was the only option, and in 2014 construction started on the pipeline. A pulp mill spokesperson stated that the company, now under the ownership of Georgia-Pacific a subsidiary of Koch Industries, had spent roughly $300 million trying to fix the contaminated Fenholloway.
Pollution costs us all, but it disproportionately costs those that can afford it least. Short-term economic gains and corporate profits often trump human and ecosystem health and we, as taxpayers, may get left footing the bill for damages done decades ago. Just this week, the Suwannee River Water Management District approved the permit to allow Nestle Waters North America to take as much as 984,000 gallons of water a day out of the Floridan aquifer over the next five years in the site near Ginnie Springs. More than 19,000 people submitted comments asking the district to deny the permit. Will this be the next story of water injustice in our state?
“100 Concerns, 100 Years How Long Must Tallevast Residents Suffer with Pollution?” Herald Tribune, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 4 Aug. 2007, www.heraldtribune.com/article/LK/20070804/News/605225273/SH.
Bagwyn, Ruby, et al. “Poisoning Tallevast.” Boston Review, Boston Critic, Inc., 3 Feb. 2021, bostonreview.net/science-nature-race/james-manigault-bryant-ruby-bagwyn-jose-constantine-poisoning-tallevast.
“Buckeye and the Fenholloway River .” Florida History: Taylor County & Perry, sites.google.com/site/taylorcountyhistory/home/2a-taylor-county/buckeye-and-the-fenholloway-river.
Galvano, Bill. “Column: The Story behind the Law on Public Notice of Contamination.” Tampa Bay Times, Tampa Bay Times, 24 Aug. 2019, www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/column-the-story-behind-the-law-on-public-notice-of-contamination/2295305/.
Laws of Florida, Chapter 24952-no. 1338. House Bill no. 242, 1947
Pittman, Craig. “FL Sacrificed a River to Get Paper Mill Jobs. The Deal Really Stunk.” The Florida Phoenix, Florida Phoenix , 7 Jan. 2021, www.floridaphoenix.com/2021/01/07/fl-sacrificed-a-river-to-get-paper-mill-jobs-the-deal-really-stunk/?fbclid=IwAR2ihqNglC3g_H2b-fCF_H9Ngmkv5T0F9PbHo15YJXtEvtLtHwIJDwWqcf0.
Regan, Mary Beth. “A Town’s Lifeblood and Polluter.” Orlando Sentinel, Tribune Publishing Company, 6 Oct. 2018, www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1992-03-26-9203260765-story.html.