MANATEE — More than three dozen Tallevast families, temporarily relocated into motels while two buildings were dismantled at a former beryllium plant, have returned home.
Lockheed Martin Corp. finished tearing down the buildings one week ahead of schedule and started moving residents back on Thursday, said company spokesman Thomas C. Greer. Lockheed paid the motel bills for 244 people involved in the temporary relocation since mid-November.
“The team worked very hard to get the work done in advance of the holidays,” Greer said. “They were very efficient.”
But for some families, the return to houses sitting atop a toxic spill was not a joyful occasion, said Wanda Washington, vice president of FOCUS, a resident’s advocacy group.
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“It’s like a double tragedy,” Washington said. “You live here fearing for your health and then you go to a safe haven and then you are thrown back again to this toxic dump.”
The two buildings torn down sat over the source of the Tallevast plume, an underground spill of cancer-causing toxins that covers more than 200 acres. As owner of the plant when the spill was uncovered in 2000, Lockheed is responsible for cleaning the mess up.
The residents asked to be moved because they feared the dismantling of the buildings might release toxic vapors or contaminated groundwater.
Washington said the return home was especially hard for Zasu Pitts, who lives alone in a house next to the site where the buildings once stood. Her son Bobby Pitts, 54, died July 27. Pitts said she believes her son’s death may have been linked to exposure from the plant. The Pitts’ private well — now sealed — was the most contaminated son Bobby Pitts, 54, died July 27. Pitts said she believes her son’s death may have been linked to exposure from the plant. The Pitts’ private well — now sealed — was the most contaminated in Tallevast.
“Zasu is not doing too well,” Washington said.
“At the hotel she had people around her. The hotel was safe, but now she is thrown back here.”
Residents have repeatedly asked Lockheed to permanently relocate the community, but the company maintains that the contaminated waste is too deep underground to present a health risk. Still, Ray O. Johnson, Lockheed’s senior chief of technology, told residents in November that the company is open to discussing permanent relocation.
With Christmas just a little more than a week away, Washington says it’s already too late for many families to do Christmas in the typical Tallevast style, with nightly parties at each others’ homes culminating in a big party at the local community center.
“It’s a state of confusion,” she said.
“How far do you go for just two weeks? We always had our tree up right after Thanksgiving. Nobody is in the mood.”
One thing is certain, Greer says: The plant will be quiet for the rest of year.
Except for training sessions, no work took place over the holiday.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing Lockheed’s final cleanup plan estimated to take 54 years. DEP has not yet announced when it will release its decision on the proposal.
“We are in a holding pattern until we hear from DEP,” Greer said. “We believe we will be able to start work early in the new year.”
Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7049.