It has been more than 30 years since former University of Florida student Gay Webster-Sachs lived near the UF landfill she believes made her ill.
She still thinks the school should do more to clean it up.[doclink to=”http://www.wuft.org/news/files/2013/09/Gay-Webster-Catherine-Duncan-University-of-Florida-September-2003-complaint.pdf”][/doclink]In September 2003, she and college roommate Catherine Duncan filed an official complaint seeking injunctive relief to compel UF to monitor and remediate any groundwater pollution from the landfill, among other counts.
Now, 10 years later, construction is underway to build an apartment complex southwest of where she once lived with Duncan and a third roommate, Eugenia Anderson, behind what is now the Hilton UF Conference Center on Southwest 34th Street.
The three roommates drank and used well water while living in a mobile home near the landfill site from 1977 to 1978. Webster-Sachs later suffered from tumors, and a number of her friends living nearby contracted cancer and other illnesses in the following 15 years.[doclink to=”http://www.wuft.org/news/files/2013/09/UF-DEP-consent-order-October-2003.pdf”][/doclink]UF responded to the roommates’ complaint filing the following month by entering into a consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The university paid the DEP $110,000 in November 2003 to assist with groundwater well monitoring.
UF continues to maintain, as does the state, that former dumping activities in the area and student illnesses are not connected. (Jump to the response from UF.)
Consequences “Never dawned on me”
Webster-Sachs said she believes the chances of a small group of former students contracting cancer or tumor-related illnesses several years after living near the landfill and using its groundwater is too strange to be coincidence.
“Toxic waste was not required at the time to be contained in safe containers,” she said. “I believe it went into the groundwater, and my roommates and I have suffered from a lot of cancer and tumors in the past 40-some years.”[pullquote]”I never even thought about the landfill when we lived there, as far as what the consequences would’ve been.”[/pullquote]
That small group included William Hurley and his brother, Lewis, who lived nearby.
Both Hurleys became ill, and Lewis Hurley died in 2003 from liver cancer. He was an ex-boyfriend of Webster-Sachs.
Though William Hurley said his own liver cancer has been dormant about 15 years, he agreed the multiple cancer diagnoses seem odd. He remembers hunting rabbits with his brother near the landfill.
“It never dawned on me that we’d come to this at this point, one time in our life,” he said. “I never even thought about the landfill when we lived there, as far as what the consequences would’ve been.”
Duncan recalls watching cows and sheep in the pasture of the “woodsy, beautiful area.”
She said she never knew the full extent of what was going on beyond a few cautionary signs she remembers marking the landfill boundaries.
“It all looked very good, but there were definitely radioactive signs, those yellow and black radioactive signs on the fences, so I never ventured over there,” she said. “But it never occurred to me that there would be any kind of danger to drinking the water or bathing in it.”
Animal dumping discrepancy[doclink to=”http://www.wuft.org/news/files/2013/09/William-Rembert-October-2003.pdf”][/doclink]A signed Oct. 28, 2003 affidavit from former UF Animal Research Department employee William Rembert, who worked for the university from the 1960s to 1995, stated he dumped about 50 dead animals twice a week into the landfill.
Rembert said he and other employees were concerned with what was going into the dump.
William Properzio (below), director of UF Environmental Health and Safety, said Rembert’s account is not accurate and denies the university used the landfill at any time other than from 1964 to 1968.
“They are wrong because I didn’t start working for the university until 1977,” he said. “I know there were some dumped there. I know where the parking lot is now — that used to be the landfill under there.”[doclink to=”http://www.wuft.org/news/files/2013/09/University-of-Florida-CDM-September-2004-site-assessment-report.pdf”][/doclink]A September 2004 site assessment report prepared for UF by CDM Smith, an environmental consulting firm, showed radionuclides were present at high levels in the groundwater beneath the landfill.
The site’s DEP project manager Bryan Baker said although groundwater reports showed radionuclide presence, much of Florida’s groundwater also contains radionuclides due to seawater’s natural radiation levels.
“We have no reason to believe the university disposed of radioactive waste,” he said.[doclink to=”http://www.wuft.org/news/files/2013/09/Florida-DEP-University-of-Florida-waste-shipment-summary.pdf”][/doclink]Chris Bird, the director of Alachua County Environmental Protection Department, said the university has many research labs today that ship chemicals away for proper disposal. But in the 1960s, he said, all of that was going into the landfill.
“At this point it doesn’t really matter where it came from,” Bird said. “But it’s kind of a no-brainer that what they were dumping in that unlined pit back in the ’60s, some of it’s probably leaking out from UF operations.”
“Impossible to prove”
Properzio said the materials found in contaminated wells were not found in the well belonging to Webster-Sachs, Duncan and Anderson.
“We got information from Alachua County on terms of the monitoring of their well,” he said. “None of the materials that we’re tracking ever got to their well.”
Furthermore, he said the 1994 Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services review stated none of the women’s three illnesses were related to the monitored materials.
“Three different kinds of cancer, and the state epidemiologist said that none of their cancers were related to any of the materials that we were monitoring,” he said.
Though there are radionuclides naturally occurring in Florida groundwater, the present contaminant of most concern is 1,4-dioxane, Baker said, and its presence extends about three blocks beneath the university.
The chemical is a man-made stabilizer used in laboratory experiments because it keeps chemical compounds from breaking apart. This quality also means 1,4-dioxane doesn’t degrade quickly and tends to be more mobile.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers the chemical “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” after it caused cancer in lab rats and mice, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Bird said the chemical is migrating beneath the landfill.
“It’s a volatile organic chemical,” he said. “There’s hundreds, probably thousands of volatile chemicals that were disposed of in this landfill, and this apparently is the one that has traveled the furthest and has migrated, and that just indicates that it’s a chemical that can move pretty quick.”
Baker said he believes its presence in the groundwater does not necessarily link the landfill to the students’ illnesses. In those cases, the Department of Health looks for clusters of people who all have one particular type of cancer instead of three different kinds.
Even then, “It would be impossible to prove either way,” Baker said.
New nearby development
Properzio said UF paved a parking lot over the site in 2000 in an effort to reduce rainwater intrusion.
“What it does, in addition to having parking, is it seals the top so that rainwater doesn’t penetrate into the cells where the landfill is and tend to wash out anything down there,” Properzio said. “It’s an added engineering control on minimizing the transport of any chemicals that might be down there.”
NP International, a Minnesota-based company, is currently developing apartment and commercial real estate to the west of the site as well as a parking lot and a throughway connecting Hull Road to Southwest 20th Street. It will be known as Village Point.
“I think it’ll be a great connector between the local community and the University of Florida,” said Brent Reynolds, NP International’s project manager for the site. He said Village Point will bring “much needed, well-planned retail, residential and additional hospitality and amenities.”
Reynolds said he didn’t want to answer questions about the adjacent site’s history.
“We’re aware of certain issues that were in the area… I would defer those comments to Bill (Properzio) at the University of Florida,” he said.[doclink to=”http://www.wuft.org/news/files/2013/09/2013-Abandonment.pdf”][/doclink]Part of the August development agreement allowed for the abandonment of seven wells installed in 1997 and 2004. Properzio said those wells haven’t shown concerning levels of contamination.
Duncan said UF’s parking lot is just paving over the problem — literally.
“I’m not a geologist, but … I think even to the layperson, it wouldn’t make sense that paving over a landfill would make the area any less toxic to the rest of the water in the aquifer in the area,” she said.
But Properzio said all residents in the area of concern, such as Museum Walk apartments, are on city of Gainesville water now, not well water.
Gainesville residents living in the area have little cause for concern, even about the 1,4-dioxane, he said.
“There is little or no concern from that material to any human exposure,” he said. “None of the pollutant is near any potable water wells, and so it doesn’t really pose a threat to anything.”
A February 2008 supplemental site assessment report addendum prepared by CDM Smith confirmed that “all private wells, with the exception of the Museum Walk irrigation well, in the immediate vicinity of the site were no longer in service.”
Current levels of the 1,4-dioxane chemical appear stable, Properzio said, and the material is actually migrating away from the landfill area and toward the university.
Bird (below) said because the landfill chemicals will be around for hundreds of years, there’s probably a need for long-term monitoring.
He said his focus is on protecting the Floridan Aquifer and North Central Florida water supply.
Though Properzio said there are more than 60 wells around the landfill site, he believes the DEP may only require UF to monitor the wells east of the landfill in the future. He does not think the DEP will require UF to actively remove the 1,4-dioxane.
“We’re still in the assessment phase, but I doubt if we’re going to monitor wells that are not in the area in which the pollutant might move to the east,” Properzio said. “We’ve established that that’s the movement path, and so I don’t think the DEP will require us to monitor in the opposite direction.”
Webster-Sachs isn’t satisfied.
She said residents of the new apartment complex may be safe if they’re drinking city water, but UF could have done more than regular site monitoring and putting in a parking lot.
“I just think they’ve done the best job they can possibly do without cleaning it up,” she said. “They’ve done the second-best thing, but I don’t think it’s good enough.”
The area west of the University of Florida near Southwest 34th Street in 1964. Click the right arrow to see the area during the proceeding four decades.
Ethan Magoc contributed to this report.
Disclosure: WUFT News is a service of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communication. Webster-Sachs is the wife of Ron Sachs, an alumnus of distinction and benefactor of the College. He was not involved in the reporting or decision to publish this story.