Pensacola, Florida
Sunday November 23rd 2014

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Pensacola, Totally Trashed: A Super Abridged Environmental History


By Jesscia Forbes

Imagine a hangover you (or your one friend) have experienced, or perhaps one you are anticipating on March 18. The actions that lead to such a condition are typically not marked by serious consideration and/or moderation. Likewise, what we as humans put in, on, and over the earth can have similarly painful effects.

Decades of persistent chemical abuse in the mid-1900s left Pensacola managing a prolonged environmental hangover that still pains the city in many ways.

Pensacola, though home to the “world’s whitest beaches,” is also home to areas of significantly polluted water and soil.

Since 1980, over 25 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Superfund, a.k.a. “uncontrolled hazardous waste” sites have been identified in Pensacola, several of which border downtown. Even NAS, one of the city’s biggest economic engines, is itself a named Superfund site.

The USEPA Superfund program is named for a fund established in 1980 that pays for USEPA-led clean up of hazardous waste sites.

Prior to 1970, industries and individuals were free to dispose of chemicals however they saw fit, and in doing so created expensive environmental messes.

Established in December 1970, the USEPA opened at the end of a year full of significant milestones in the environmental movement: on January 1, 1970 President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act; the first Earth Day was held on April 22; and the Clean Air Act was passed that summer, followed by the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Sadly, Pensacola is and was not alone in the volume of its pollution. Pensacolians, like many Americans, spoke out about visible changes in air and water quality, which were evident here in massive fish kills in the bay during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Citizens and newly formed environmental groups such as the Bream Fisherman Association noted a significant decline in fish, shrimp, and oyster catches, coupled with overall sludgy conditions in the once clear Escambia, Pensacola, and Perdido bays. The Miami Herald summarized in 1970, “Escambia Bay Once Spawning Ground … sewage, waste, pesticides take toll.”

By the 1970s, Pensacola had experienced two decades worth of industrial plants dumping waste into rivers and bays, and poor or no mitigation of sewage disposal into rivers and bayous on the part of local municipalities.

The Escambia Chemical Company, a fertilizer manufacturer, along with American Cyanamid, the Monsanto Company, and the Container Corporation of America were each dumping thousands of pounds of chemicals daily into the Escambia River from the 1950s through the 1970s, which feeds into the bays and Gulf.

Some companies, like American Creosote Works, left or buried waste in large pits on their properties, which eventually worked its way into the groundwater.

American Creosote Works operated from 1902 to 1981, at a site south of the intersection of Barrancas and Main streets. Creosote is a wood preservative, comprising a mixture of hundreds of chemicals applied to wood pilings, telephone poles, railroad ties, etc., and storage lagoons full of that and other chemicals contribute to the pollution at that site.

Near the intersection of North Palafox and Fairfield Avenue, Agrico Chemical Company (a fertilizer company) and the Escambia Treating Company (which used creosote to treat wood) both used a significant amount of chemicals on their properties that later resulted in their designation as Superfund Sites.

Pollution was so significant in the vicinity of the Agrico and Escambia Treating Company sites it resulted in the third largest relocation of residents in Superfund history, requiring over 350 families to move from the area beginning in 1997. The groundwater plume from the vicinity reportedly reaches Bayou Texar, and possibly beyond.

Locally, clean up of the Pioneer Sand Company’s sludge pit on Saufley Field Road is considered a Superfund success, with 17 years between its identification as a site in 1982 and its EPA close out report in 1999. At such a rate, it may take some time for Pensacola to clean up and make it off those “Worst Drinking Water in America” lists.