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Poison Place: The Showdown

Locals refuse to accept raw deal from company that contaminated their community

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For some, the last few months have been like a high-stakes poker game. On one side was a big corporation, a developer, and its consultant, all playing for big bucks. On the other side were rural residents, playing for their lives.

Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Life is not a matter of holding good cards but playing a poor hand well.” The big corporation and its associates initially seemed to hold all the good cards: money, inside knowledge, influence and time. But the neighborhood folks banded together, learned quickly and turned their poor hand into a mighty force. On June 26, the winner was revealed.

The Solite Corporation, owned by Northeast Solite, owns more than 900 acres in the Russell community in Green Cove Springs. Solite mined clay and baked it in kilns to make pebbles for building materials and drainage for septic tanks. Initially, the plant used clean fuels. In the early ’70s, with rising fuel costs and huge financial incentives for burning hazardous wastes, Solite began importing and burning massive amounts of some of the most harmful chemicals in the spectrum of hazardous materials.

After an unusually large percentage of people became ill and died, locals formed Florida Families for Clean Air (FFCA) and began investigating. Too late, they discovered Solite was burning dangerous wastes using faulty equipment, releasing dangerous chemicals into air, land and waterways, including Black Creek. The group also obtained documented proof that, since the ’80s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) had been well aware of Solite’s offenses and the dangers they posed.

FFCA first sought help from the Board of County Commissioners (BCC), but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Members of the BCC were close political friends with Solite’s powerful local attorney, and all but one commissioner refused to help.

Undeterred, FFCA continued badgering the EPA, FDEP and the Occupational Safety & Health Association (OSHA); in July 1996, they were finally getting somewhere when Solite literally left town in the middle of the night. That October, FDEP promised FFCA there would be oversight of the facility. Then … nothing. The property sat, highly contaminated and relatively undisturbed, for 23 years.

This April, Solite reappeared with a new nom de plume, Stoneridge Farms, a plan and a team: Albert Galliano, who had worked at the plant in the ’80s and ’90s as a supervisor and environmental affairs coordinator, a title he still held; Jacksonville developer Michael Danhour; and former Clay County Director of Planning & Zoning Susan Fraser, now of SLF Consulting in Jacksonville.

Unbeknown to residents, Fraser had already submitted a plan. Solite’s 903 acres would be subdivided into three parcels: A, B and C. Fraser maintained that FDEP stated Parcel A was free of contaminates. After rezoning changed from one home per five acres to three homes per acre, Danhour would purchase the land and build infrastructure for a large development on Parcel A. Simultaneously, he would place $2 million to be held in “abeyance” and used for cleanup of Parcel B. It wasn’t clear if the $2 million would come from Solite, which had tried unsuccessfully to sell the property for years, if Danhour would provide the funds, or both would pitch in. Parcel C was not mentioned in the plan.

Planning & Zoning immediately approved the rezoning, but Stoneridge Farms had to get approval from Clay County’s Planning Commission and the BCC.

The Planning & Zoning department recommended approval. It appeared to be a done deal, as the planning commission usually takes its recommendation.

Realistically, 23 years had all but erased Solite’s sins from public memory. Residents who were involved in FFCA had died, were sick, moved or tried to forget about the chemicals lurking within the gates of Solite. When a rezoning sign appeared, most residents had no inkling of the history of the plant or their vulnerability to further risk. That changed quickly when residents researched the proposal. Shock, disbelief and fear spread throughout the community.

Residents quickly mobilized, providing planning commissioners with copies of records from EPA and FDEP detailing how the Solite plant had poisoned the air quality, land and waterways. They told of Solite’s abrupt departure. Documents were also supplied confirming Solite’s binding contract with FDEP to provide financial assurances to put money aside for cleanup if it contaminated the property. Also provided were documents detailing how Solite’s parent company, Northeast Solite, formed a shell company and turned its million-dollar plant into Stoneridge Farms, which had no assets. Also supplied were emails to residents from FDEP’s Bryan Baker, which said the agency assumed Parcel A was clean, but had done no testing because they saw no evidence of contamination. Russell residents dubbed the property “Solite Farms.”

When Fraser presented the plan at a public meeting on May 1, she maintained FDEP had deemed Parcel A “absolutely clean.” She told the commission that Stoneridge Farms had no assets or money to clean up the property, but said $2 million from the sale of the property would be used for that purpose. She said Stoneridge Farms was offering a “win-win” solution.

When their turn came to speak, resident after resident reiterated all the information they’d provided to commissioners; some shared heartbreaking stories of illnesses and loss, both their own and those of their neighbors, many of whom had died. They expressed fears that a halfway attempt at cleanup would be worse than leaving the land undisturbed. They asked for zoning to be denied.

Planning commissioners in turn voiced disdain and contempt for Solite contaminating the land, possibly injuring locals, and absconding. A continuance was granted so that Fraser and her associates could attempt to allay residents’ fears at a community meeting—but they may as well have skipped it. The meeting accomplished nothing.

On June 5, the commission met again. Baker from FDEP was invited; it appeared FDEP sided with Solite’s proposal. However, FDEP’s credibility plummeted when commissioners threw a barrage of questions his way. He admitted FDEP has no real evidence that Parcel A was actually “clean.” Commissioners asked how FDEP had allowed monied Solite to became penniless Stoneridge Farms. Baker didn’t know the answer. Who would be responsible if toxins were found on Parcel A, after homes were built? That he knew: The potential homeowner would be responsible.

Just before the vote, Fraser again requested a continuance. Commission Chairman Joe Anzalone gave her a decisive “no,” then they voted 7-0 against the rezoning. Each commissioner also reprimanded Solite for exploiting its neighbors and a swath of pristine land in Clay County.

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The final showdown would occur at the BCC meeting on June 26. Russell residents knew their ordeal was far from over—Planning & Zoning has historically maintained that property owners have the right to do whatever they want on their property. Again, they rallied and lobbied BCC to deny Solite.

On the evening in question, Russell residents and supporters arrived early and packed the room. Fraser presented first, with little new information. Danhour played his cards next. He said he would be willing to do independent testing on some of the property and possibly perform a fish study.

Then THEY came. One after another. All 28 of them. It was the stuff that inspires movies. Residents spoke of the EPA and FDEP documents which showed how Solite’s dangerous lethal toxins had overflowed into waterways. They wept and told of illnesses, grief, deaths. They shared their distrust for FDEP for failing to hold Solite accountable and for failing to conduct testing. They expressed fears of the harmful toxins being re-released by development or even cleanup attempts. They talked of doubts that Parcel A was clean, that $2 million would be sufficient to cleanup Parcel B; they wondered what was on Parcel C. Resident after resident begged the commission to deny the zoning and to hold Solite accountable for its sins.

The most terrifying and heartbreaking narratives came from two former Solite employees, Michael Zelinka and Ben Mitts. Zelinka, who lives in St. Augustine, had first read about the battle between Solite and the Russell residents in Folio Weekly (“Poison Place,” May 30). Since working at Solite, he has had numerous serious health issues. “I never put it all together until I read the story,” he said.

After reading the story, Zelinka joined the fight. Since BCC allows only three minutes for public comment, residents took a sworn notarized statement. To ensure Zelinka’s entire story was told, after three minutes, his statement was handed off to the next speaker, five consecutive times.

“Right there where you see that red line,” Zelinka began, pointing to a map of the property. “That big lake is full of vehicles, equipment, angle iron, rebar, catwalks and drums.” He said the toxic chemicals had rusted metals and rendered all equipment either inoperable or in need of constant repair. “I remember seeing them at night when we were fishing. There is so much crap in that ground …. You are looking at a 20 years’ project […] and there is no actual safe way to dig that dirt up.”

Zelinka said that when it rained, the scrubber pond “bled off into everything. All the lakes and creeks all over the property wound up being affected. That ground they call Parcel A, it isn’t clean […] because when that scrubber pond gave in and when it overflowed into that big lake by the old plant, it would spread out back into the back area of Parcel A.”

Zelinka, whose supervisor at the time was Galliano, said Solite was “a dangerous place to work.” OSHA standards require individuals who work around hazardous chemicals to wear protective gear. The only protective gear Solite employees ever wore, he remembered, were respiratory masks when they unloaded chemicals. He said the kilns had to be extremely hot to burn hazardous materials, so they had to rebuild them about every three months. He said workers had to crawl around inside and “mud the walls” of kilns. Zelinka said the arsenic came in a powder form, so they had to use sprayers to get it into the kiln; spraying arsenic created a fine powder cloud all around the facility and all over the workers. When any employee asked about protective gear, Galliano and others assured them they were in no danger, Zelinka said, that there were no adverse affects from working around the chemicals. Most of them were young and needed the jobs, he said, so they accepted what management told them.

Zelinka said that on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, they unloaded 15 to 20 pallets, each holding 55-gallon drum barrels of arsenic, cyanide, mercury and other materials; the checklist of hazardous chemicals usually filled two pages. When it was time to unload the next shipment, he recalled, all the drum barrels in storage were already gone. Employees, he said, sometimes shoveled ash and waste that hadn’t burned off into barrels, and where those barrels went, only the night shift knew. The night crew, he said, told stories of chemical spills all around the property.

When he started working at Solite in 1991, Zelinka said he was 26, in great physical shape and could run 20 miles a day. In 1993, at age 28, he had a massive heart attack. Then Solite fired him.

He unbuttoned his shirt and displayed a large mass under the skin on the left side of his chest. “I’m stuck with this in my chest for the rest of my life.” He said his doctor said the heart attack resulted from ingesting major drugs or chemicals. He said he took no drugs and tests showed none in his system. However, he said, testing showed arsenic and other hazardous compounds.

His family also suffered. Zelinka said his wife got pregnant two months after he left Solite. She had twins. “One of the twins fit in the palm of my hand.” The child survived two minutes. The other was born legally blind and continues to have learning difficulties.

Solite’s ex-employee lamented the fate of one of his friends, Kenny, who died of cancer in his 30s. “He was devoted to Solite and talked about the work all the time. He was a good guy.”

Zelinka said he tried to get other former employees to come forward with what they knew, but they were afraid and warned him not to speak out. “I’m half-dead,” he said, “they almost killed me already. What are they going to do to me that they haven’t already done? And how many more people will get sick and die if I don’t speak up? If I would have known this back then, I would have started talking then.”

After Zelinka and his stand-ins finished telling his story, the audience erupted into applause. Such disruptions are usually quickly quashed, but this time BCC Chairman Gavin Rollins did not bang the gavel or instruct the audience to quiet down.

Clay County resident Ben Mitts then came forward to verify Zelinka’s claims about chemical spillage and lack of protective gear. He added that the company was required to put air-quality monitors around the perimeter. “Night shift would cover them, so we could ‘black-smoke-it’ and keep burning.”

Mitts showed numerous lesions on his arms. The lesions, doctors had told him, were from heavy metal exposure. He said the lesions routinely became cancerous and he had to have them “cut out.” Five years after leaving Solite, he had a daughter born with a rare ocular cancer; at eight months old, she had surgery to have it removed.

“These people have lied and victimized Clay County for 50 years. Don’t betray us.”

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Now it was time for Solite’s rebuttal. Galliano did not appear to feel well when he took the mike. “We did things the way they are supposed to be done,” he said, looking to the side. “This is a win-win for everybody.” Galliano told the BCC that Stoneridge Farms could offer the property to a commercial entity. “We probably would spend $100,000 and walk off and be done.”

The BCC didn’t appear to like this, especially Commissioner Wayne Bolla.

“Do you have any idea how much money your company was making when you were putting all this waste into Clay County?” Bolla demanded. Galliano didn’t know. Bolla continued, saying Solite should be sued. The issue, he said, was to get the property cleaned up. “If we walk away from this today and say you can’t build anything there, it’s still gonna sit there. These people are still living next to this mess. Unless we get some resolution as to how we are going to proceed going forward and clean up this place, we are really not doing our jobs.”

Solite’s plan to transfer ownership of the property to shell company Stoneridge Farms seemed to irk Commissioner Mike Cella. He chastised Galliano for Solite’s attempt to side-step responsibility, noting the multimillion-dollar Northeast Solite had not even registered Stoneridge Farms as an active Florida corporation. “How are we supposed to believe that you are reporting and updating when we can’t even get you to pay the $300 to file as a foreign corporation here in Florida?”

Commissioner Diane Hutchings was equally miffed. “These are our neighbors; these are people we have family ties to; we love them. We’ve been left with a mess and it is gonna be cleaned up. There is no more talk of development. There’s only talk of cleanup. As for the change in the corporation, ha-ha! This is nothing more than a loophole to get out from under what you know you were responsible for here in Clay County.” Hutchings looked around. “It begins today. We are all in this together.”

Chairman Rollins piled on. “The reality is, although you created a defense legally, all defenses legally can be pierced eventually in court …. I believe in capitalism, but I also believe government has the responsibility to rein in people who just basically come in and raid a community and leave. I intend to do whatever we have the ability to do within our power to hold you guys accountable and responsible.”

After dismissing Galliano, BCC continued interrogating FDEP’s Baker. Commissioner Bolla asked Baker how FDEP had allowed Solite to create a “smoking mess” yet allowed it to be released from a government contract to clean up the property and to become a shell company with no responsibility. Baker still had no answers.

Throughout the proceeding, Gayward Hendry, Russell’s district commissioner, had been uncharacteristically quiet. He offered a summation of the proceedings. “We’ve put so many nails in this coffin, we’re not going to get the lid off of it. I think this train probably left the station and I’m not on it.”

Hendry made a motion to deny the application for rezoning and deny a continuance.

Bolla interjected and asked the county attorney to investigate legal options to stop industrial development on the site, then Commissioner Hendry’s motion passed 5-0 to thunderous applause.

Rollins said he believed Solite was an “evil corporation that did very bad things to Clay County,” consequently, he wanted to explore what steps could be taken to force a Solite cleanup. Commissioner Cella said he believed the county should contact legislators to make Solite’s cleanup a legislative priority.

Russell residents don’t expect ‘Solite Farms’ to fold. But they believe most of the company’s good cards have been played. And, they hope, Clay County has some good cards of its own left to play.

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Read our previous coverage of this issue here and here.

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