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Neighbors release new chemical test results from area surrounding old Clay County mining site

The proposed Russell Ridge neighborhood and the school board property are within a three-mile radius of the former mining facility. (Sarah Henry/WUFT News)
The proposed Russell Ridge neighborhood and the school board property are within a three-mile radius of the former mining facility. (Sarah Henry/WUFT News)

The nation’s largest homebuilder has proposed plans to build townhomes on a property bordering an abandoned Clay County mining facility with a history of chemical contamination.
The Russell Road Land Trust is the new owner of the 78 acres sandwiched between the mining site, owned by Stoneridge Farms, and Russell Road. John Gislason, a land acquisition manager at D.R. Horton, purchased a contract to develop the land.

The trust bought the land from Stoneridge Farms, which previously owned the property, in March for $3.3 million, property sales records show.

The Clay County Development Review Committee is scheduled to meet this Thursday to discuss the proposed neighborhood, Russell Ridge, which would include 332 homes, a pond and a park area.

The meeting comes amid community concerns of lingering chemical and heavy metal contamination. Residents of Russell Landinghave worried for decades that contaminants from Florida Solite, the former clay mining facility, polluted their community, increasing risks of cancer and other diseases.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) tested at the Solite site in April. Results showed elevated levels of arsenic above the state’s soil cleanup target levels set for the property. However, FDEP did not collect samples from the nearby neighborhoods.

Kathryn Craver, external affairs director for the agency’s northeast district, said at the time that there was no evidence of off-site contamination.

“It’s important to note that based upon soil, sediment, groundwater and surface water testing to date, all known soil/sediment/groundwater contamination is contained within the property boundary,” she said in July.

Frustrated by what she described as unexplained illnesses in her community and the FDEP’s response, Clay County Commissioner Kristen Burke helped organize the Solite Task Force to spearhead environmental testing off-site.

“We, as citizens, took it upon ourselves because we were tired of being told there was no reason to test further, we’re tired of hearing stories of people getting sick,” said Burke, who is also a resident of Russell Landing.

Testing in May and June by Pace Laboratories, paid for by community members, found lead, arsenic, chromium and other heavy metals in 13 different locations within a two-mile radius of the facility, according to results made public last week by Burke and the Solite Task Force. The testing did not include Gislason’s 78 acres.

However, like the FDEP’s testing in April, the Pace tests revealed that only the arsenic exceeded residential and industrial actionable levels set by the state.

Residential actionable levels are stricter than industrial levels. They are determined by the amount of safe exposure to a child living at the contaminated location 50 weeks out of the year, said associate research professor Leah Stuchal of UF’s Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology, a consultant for FDEP on Stoneridge Farms.

“Unfortunately, with arsenic it’s a little hard to tell where it comes from,” Stuchal said. “We know that Stoneridge Farms has arsenic on it, and we know the arsenic is a problem.”

It could be left behind from industrial practices or it could be from another source, such as pesticides, she said.

The community task force had its results since summer but only released them at a press conference Nov. 5. Task force members said they wanted to wait for a formal meeting with FDEP before providing them to the public.

Task force members met with FDEP employees in Tallahassee on Oct. 31 to discuss the results. Deputy Secretary of Regulatory Programs Jessica Kramer and officials from the divisions of waste management, hazardous waste and legislative affairs attended. Florida Sen. Jennifer Bradley and Rep. Sam Garrison, both Republicans from Clay County’s Fleming Island, also attended the meeting, which was closed to the press and public.

No representatives from Stoneridge Farms attended. Gislason, the D.R. Horton land acquisition manager, said D.R. Horton had no comment at this time.

Bruce Reynolds, who is serving as a technical advisor on the task force, noted that parts of the proposed Russell Ridge development will be about 500 feet away from a scrubber pond on the Solite property where arsenic, barium, chromium, lead, acenaphthene and dioxins were previously found.

Burke and others also expressed concern about a recent purchase the Clay County School Board made in June—a 95-acre property less than 2 miles from the Solite site. The county plans to build a school on the land to accommodate a growing population.

Members of the task force said they hope the new test results will prompt the FDEP to conduct more extensive testing in the surrounding community.

Reynolds said the FDEP didn’t have much of an immediate reaction to the findings at the meeting.

WUFT reached out to Craver last Thursday about the agency’s next steps but is still awaiting a response.

“I think the information did catch them by surprise,” Reynolds said. “But we let them know this is a very high priority for us.”

Sarah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.