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Editorial: First in Florida: Is this our toxic legacy?

Pensacola News Journal Published 11:00 a.m. CT Dec. 2, 2017 | Updated 11:26 a.m. CT Dec. 2, 2017
The following report form the Pensacola News Journal can only be deemed disturbing.  Eleventh worst in the nation.  There can be no excuse for this, and the people should demand and accept nothing less that a correction.  An educational campaign is called for to bring this to light.

And it’s yet another sad example of local government permitting industrial pollution in a poorer area of the county that would not be tolerated near more affluent neighborhoods in Gulf Breeze, East Hill, Pensacola Beach or Perdido Key.

It is unjust and immoral to permit harmful activity near poor communities while upholding higher standards of stewardship for wealthier and more educated citizens. Ultimately, we will all pay a price, rich and poor alike, as environmental negligence leaves a damning and irreparable legacy for the entire area.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-


Beyond the battles over   beach bills, the sheriff’s budget, and our eternal struggles with education and economic development, Escambia County might have a much bigger problem to worry about. According to a recent report from Forbes, Escambia ranked within the 50 counties across the United States responsible for discharging the most hazardous chemicals.

We’re 11th to be exact, having disposed of about 34 million pounds of toxic materials into the environment last year. That’s worse than any other county in Florida. No other county in the state even made the list.

Escambia County: First in Florida for toxic disposal. Where are our economic development and marketing experts on this one? Ranking at the top nationally for polluting the environment isn’t the sort of stat that’s going to attract tourists or jobs to the area.

PNJ watchdog reporter Joe Baucum detailed the troubling report for readers last week. According to Environmental Protection Agency data, the chemical company Ascend Performance Materials accounted for 32 million pounds of the locally disposed toxins last year.

The EPA oversees “The Toxics Release Inventory” which “tracks the management of over 650 toxic chemicals that pose a threat to human health and the environment.” Companies are required to report disposal of harmful chemicals, so there is at least some level of public accounting for what sort of toxins are being released into the natural environment.

More: Escambia County ranks 11th in list of U.S. counties disposing of most toxins

However, keeping the records and building public awareness are two different things. It’s highly doubtful that many Escambia residents were aware that they are living in one of the worst locations for toxic material disposal in the country. That seems like the sort of thing people should be informed about.

Ascend officials declined to do an interview with Baucum, opting instead to provide a prepared statement and information on the disposal process, which injects wastewater into wells about 1,400 feet below the Cantonment area. Baucum described the process for readers:

“The manufacturer injects treated wastewater into the ground through a pipe system. The device slices through several layers below the ground’s surface. First, it cuts through the Sand and Gravel Aquifer, the Pensacola region’s source for drinking water. It then digs through several hundred feet of clay, another aquifer and a couple hundred more feet of clay, until finally depositing the wastewater into the lower Floridan Aquifer, which contains saltwater. According to the company, water comprises about 99 percent of the wastewater. Toxic materials form the remainder.”

Baucum wrote that International Paper, also in Cantonment, contributed the remaining significant portion of hazardous waste released in Escambia County, emitting about 1.5 million pounds of toxins last year, the majority through the air.

We’re not blaming the companies. But it’s time to ask what kind of community permits this to happen. We have chosen this and we are building ourselves a terrible legacy. The most toxic county in Florida? One of the worst in the nation? What kind of place is that for children to grow up?

More: After pushing bill to abolish EPA, Rep. Matt Gaetz joins Climate Solutions Caucus

And it’s yet another sad example of local government permitting industrial pollution in a poorer area of the county that would not be tolerated near more affluent neighborhoods in Gulf Breeze, East Hill, Pensacola Beach or Perdido Key.

It is unjust and immoral to permit harmful activity near poor communities while upholding higher standards of stewardship for wealthier and more educated citizens. Ultimately, we will all pay a price, rich and poor alike, as environmental negligence leaves a damning and irreparable legacy for the entire area.

At some point, a community must be tough enough to ask if the jobs and industry are worth the damage to our environment and reputation.

Tireless advocate from the panhandle, Linda Young

Linda Young, founder of the environmental advocacy organization Florida Clean Water Network, spoke to Baucum about the cycle of damage when communities tether themselves to polluting industries. “It’s almost like an abused wife that just can’t break away and say, ‘I’ve had enough and I’m leaving,'” Young said. “We’re just saying, ‘Keep beating us. Give us our daily dose of poison. We won’t make a fuss.’ That’s not fair to the children who live here and don’t have a choice. The proof is all there for people to see if they want to see it.”

County and business leaders should focus on the goal of ending this sad cycle once and for all, by committing to better standards, policies and industries that are the polar opposite of the toxic behavior that got us here.

There are poignant community models for such a reversal. Communities such as Cleveland, Chattanooga and Birmingham have intentionally changed course and reinvented themselves after toxic and industrial pasts. Creative leaders committed to an environmental future (and the resulting economic health) brought rejuvenation to these cities that once looked hopelessly damaged.

Our area needs to do the same — or else. Escambia County and Pensacola need to take the opportunity to reinvent what we’ve become. We must reject and rethink our own low standards. We need to break the pattern of environmental abuse that we have tolerated for decades. It may have provided some economic benefit in decades past. But it is simply unacceptable for forward-thinking communities who are looking to thrive in the future.

Because being first in Florida for toxic disposal is a doomed distinction. If the chemicals don’t kill us, the reputation will.

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