Special Reports

County administrator meets with Tallevast players

MANATEE - Manatee County's new county administrator heard both sides of the Tallevast pollution problem this week and came away committed to finding a solution all could accept.

On Wednesday, Ed Hunzeker traveled to the historic town sitting on top of a 200-acre plume of underground toxic waste to meet Laura Ward and Wanda Washington, leaders of the community advocacy group FOCUS.

On Thursday, he welcomed representatives from Lockheed Martin Corp. to his new office in the county administration building.

All around, Hunzeker made good impressions.

"I liked him," Washington said. "He didn't seem new to the situation. It sounded like he has had experience with contamination and its effect on communities."

"I'm very impressed with him," said Gail Rymer, Lockheed spokeswoman. "It's important for the county, Lockheed Martin and the Tallevast community to work together in addressing the health, safety and quality of life of the families."

It didn't take long for Hunzeker to identify the biggest obstacle blocking progress in reaching an accord - a breakdown in communications between Lockheed and FOCUS that has led to a breach of trust between the two.

"As in most things, there are two sides to a story," Hunzeker said Thursday. "I heard both sides over the past two days. They appear to not be communicating, or at least FOCUS does not trust the information that comes from Lockheed."

Broken trust dates back to 2003 when Tallevast residents learned about the contamination in their backyards, three years after Lockheed discovered the leak that is thought to be the source of the toxic plume.

Although Lockheed, the county and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection knew about the toxic waste in 2000, they were under no legal obligation to tell residents, even though at least 17 families relied solely on private drinking-water wells that were later found to be contaminated.

Lockheed has said repeatedly it is committed to working with residents to address health, safety and property concerns.

But as the size of the plume grew with each challenge of Lockheed's data, Tallevast's trust in Lockheed's promises eroded.

Hunzeker declined to answer whether he felt that Tallevast residents' lack of trust was justified.

"I don't know enough yet to answer," he said. "With just one visit on each side, I cannot draw conclusions."

Still, Hunzeker said he plans to act as a facilitator between the two sides - and both sides appear ready to work with him.

"He will be a real asset," Rymer said. "Mr. Hunzeker is committed to doing what is right for his constituents."

Washington said she's ready to give Hunzeker a chance.

"My first impression - he is a fair man," she said. "We are going to have to wait and see how it all works out."