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Tallevast toxic plume still haunts: Residents wait for Lockheed's clean-up plan

TALLEVAST — Nearly a decade and counting.

That’s how much time has passed since Lockheed Martin Corp. discovered an underground plume of toxic waste beneath an old beryllium plant it owned in Tallevast.

And nearly a year has passed since Lockheed submitted its revised clean-up plan to state environmentalists, claiming it would take more than a half-century to clean up the spill.

While limited clean-up of the beryllium plant campus is under way, the final clean-up plan still awaits state approval. The Department of Environmental Protection has sent Lockheed back to the drawing boards three times in the past nine months with requests for more information and modification.

Tallevast residents will not have to wait much longer, state officials say.

Lockheed must submit its latest revised plan by July 14. The community will have an opportunity to respond to the plan as DEP does its review.

Once the plan is approved, remediation of the toxic waste can begin. Although Lockheed predicts a lengthy cleanup, the majority of the waste will be removed in the first five years.

But Tallevast residents are still deeply concerned for their health and welfare, say Laura Ward and Wanda Washington, leaders of FOCUS, an advocacy group for Tallevast residents.

Ward and Washington maintain the state has been far too lenient with Lockheed. The repeated requests from the state for additional information from Lockheed have, in essence, totally changed the plan without appropriate public comment, Washington said.

Lockheed disagrees. Lockheed officials say the revised clean-up plan will propose the same technology that was submitted last September. In March, Lockheed re- sampled the hundreds of monitoring wells installed since the contamination was discovered in 2000. Although the data is still under analysis, an initial evaluation revealed no substantial changes in the plume.

But FOCUS leaders claim their own independent tests indicate otherwise. Those tests reveal dangerous chemicals Lockheed has missed, including Freon and Acrolein, a colorless or yellow liquid used in pesticides to control algae and to make other chemicals for industrial use.

Lockheed has found low levels of those chemicals, but officials say they are not related to the toxic waste that spilled from the old beryllium plant the company once owned.

Lockheed stands by its plume maps, which FOCUS leaders continue to claim are incomplete and inadequate.

Despite these disagreements, both sides agree communication has improved over the past year. Still, residents were disappointed when Lockheed Senior Vice President Ken Meashey, who was in charge of local operations, was replaced without explanation in March by Brad Owen, one of the company’s remediation experts.

“We got along well with Meashey,” Washington said. “He listened to us and then all of a sudden he was gone.”

Unannounced staff changes are a major cause of mistrust between the community and Lockheed, Washington says.

While FOCUS and its independent technical advisers are now regular attendees at most meetings, Washington says they don’t participate in the development of plans. Tim Varney, FOCUS’s lead adviser, did not respond to a request for comment.

“We don’t really have a say and it’s hard to comment because everything they do is a moving target,” Washington said.

Relocation a key issue

Residents are beyond worry and frustration, contends Ward.

At the heart of frustrations: No action on relocating the community, which many residents believe is the only real solution to save Tallevast.

Lockheed officials have continually said there is no health risk to justify relocation. But at the last community meeting in December, Ray O. Johnson, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Lockheed, assured residents that relocation was still on the table. The problem, Johnson said, is defining what relocation means.

Since then, Lockheed officials have said the company has been actively engaged in discussions with the community and its representatives on the relocation issue. But FOCUS says those talks have never happened.

“We haven’t heard a thing,” said Washington.

Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, tried last year to get all sides to put their legal issues aside to address relocation. To date, those efforts have been unsuccessful. Lawsuits filed against Lockheed by more than 300 residents are impeding progress, the legislator says.

“I have tried so many different ways to facilitate a solution outside of the slow, arduous court process,” Galvano said. “I will still try to do that, but the response could have been better on both sides. I attribute that to the issue being tied up in the legal system, which is the way all parties have chosen to resolve this.”

Ed Cottingham of Charleston, S.C., is the lead attorney for the Tallevast residents’ legal team. He acknowledges that litigation is moving more slowly than the team would like.

“Both sides are still doing discovery,” Cottingham said. “It’s a complicated issue.”

But there has been progress.

Tallevast attorneys and Lockheed’s legal team, led by Clifford J. Zatz of the Washington D.C. firm of Crowell & Moring LLP, will have a status conference June 30 with Judge Janet Dunnigan in the 12th Circuit Court.

“We hope we can get scheduling orders in place and set a trial date, but we don’t know about that yet,” said Cottingham, who thinks a trial is unlikely to begin before mid-2010 or later.

Meanwhile, FOCUS is entertaining Lockheed’s offer to build a new community center to replace the aging facility directly behind the former beryllium plant.

FOCUS has submitted a proposal for location and layout of the facility, which Lockheed is studying. Neither FOCUS nor Lockheed would reveal details while discussions are ongoing, but both sides expect to reach a decision in August.

“We will accept on condition,” said Ward. “Any agreement we make will not supersede relocation.”

Lockheed officials have suggested a location to the east of the railroad that bisects Tallevast.

FOCUS wants the center to be the heart of a new relocated community at a site they have chosen but not disclosed.

Lockheed has made other offers to help residents, including a property value protection program and a medical evaluation program funded with an initial grant of $500,000 to provide health care for Tallevast residents.

Both programs are run by independent, third-party administrators. Only one property owner has taken advantage of the value protection program, and about 80 people have used the medical program, Lockheed officials say.

Lack of participation, residents say, reflects their lack of trust.

With development hemming in the tiny community on all sides and pollution coursing through the groundwater beneath their homes, residents fear losing not only their heritage but their health.

“We still really don’t know what is going on,” said Washington. “We want more discovery. We want to know more about the plume. We want to be safe.”

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