The public's right to know
March 9, 2010
If the groundwater around or beneath the homes of Florida lawmakers had been contaminated and they didn't find out about it until nearly two decades later, you can bet they'd quickly pass a law to make sure they'd never be kept in the dark about such things again.
The public deserves the same concern.
The state Department of Environmental Protection discovered a plume of paints and other toxic chemicals from a now-vacant defense plant had contaminated groundwater in an area of St. Petersburg in 1991. But 17 years went by before residents were informed.
Since the discovery, the plume, according to Sen. Charlie Justice's office, has "migrated 200 acres, affecting two apartment complexes, three neighborhoods, community parks, schools and the waters of Tampa Bay."
Such an inexcusable delay should never be tolerated again. When the environment is contaminated, affected residents need to be notified as quickly as possible. It is a matter of public health.
Yet, Justice, a St. Petersburg Democrat whose district includes part of Hillsborough County, and Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, have twice had to file bills that would mandate timely disclosure to residents of contamination of groundwater, surface water and soil.
The legislation failed to win passage last year, and this year appears to face tough sledding, too. Concerns have been voiced about compliance costs for companies and the additional expansion of government.
These are lame excuses.
Under the legislation, workers discovering or confirming contamination would have 10 days to notify DEP's Division of Waste Management in Tallahassee. The notice must include the location of the property in question, a listing of all property owners whose land has been contaminated and the names of contaminants discovered "above cleanup target levels."
Then, DEP has 30 days to notify local elected officials, government administrators, affected property owners and landowners within a 500-foot or 250-foot radius, depending upon the type work being conducted when the contamination was discovered.
Local governments also would be charged with mailing copies of the state's notice to the presidents or other officers of homeowners' and neighborhood associations within the affected area. This will help in the event some parties were inadvertently left out of the loop.
The legislation gives the state several options to contact landowners: certified mail, regular mail, hand delivery or simply hanging the notice on a door knob.
Although the state, appropriately, would be entitled to recoup notification costs from "the responsible party," surely such expense would be minimal. It shouldn't cost much to photocopy a notice and distribute it.
E-mailing residents should be considered as well. That certainly would reduce costs and allow for quick notice.
No matter the noticing mechanism, costs are no reason to kill the legislation. Do lawmakers care more about a postage bill or the public's safety?
Surely, lawmakers will agree that people need to be notified as soon as possible when health threats surface - not years later. They should approve these bills this session.
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