GREEN COVE SPRINGS — Eighteen years ago, on their way to church on Sunday mornings, Kristen Burke and her husband would go out of their way to drive through a neighborhood called Russell Landing to admire the houses perched on rolling green lawns.
Located about 50 miles northeast of Gainesville on the eastern edge of Clay County near Black Creek, Russell Landing is dotted with sprawling horse pastures and strung with shady green lanes.
Eventually, Burke got her dream house in Russell Landing, raising her four children there. But more than a decade after moving there, in 2018, she noticed rezoning signs along an abandoned industrial site that bordered her neighborhood. A Jacksonville developer wanted to buy the property, formerly the Florida Solite Company, and build a housing complex.
“We knew about the Solite property, as my husband was born in Green Cove Springs, but we didn’t know the extent of what they had done there,” she said.
Burke, wary of the rezoning, started doing some digging. What she found was a history of hazardous waste contamination on the property. Residents worried that Solite’s operations left behind carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals that made their way into the community’s water and soil — and ultimately, its people.
Florida Solite officials declined to be interviewed by a WUFT reporter. But in an email, an executive for Florida Solite and one of its affiliated companies said they would comply with the findings and recommendations of a hazard and waste management plan outlined by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“We will follow FDEP’s requirements,” said Albert Galliano, environmental manager at Northeast Solite.
Five years ago, Burke and her neighbors were able to prevent the rezoning, launching Burke into a position as a county commissioner. But now, neighborhood concerns over the site are looming again. The Jacksonville developer, Michael Danhour, is back, with plans for development.
But Burke is organizing to put a stop to it once and for all.
The drive to the neglected site is less a road than a rocky path. At its end sit tiered concrete blocks and a rusted gate with a sign reading “No hunting. No fishing. No trespassing.” There is little here to betray its history, but, according to former Solite employee Michael Zelinka, behind the pines lie the broken remains of towering kilns and blue barrels of buried chemical waste.
For the nearly 45 years it was operational, Florida Solite Company mined clay, baked it in industrial kilns and treated it with chemicals, before shipping it out.
Zelinka, 58, worked for Solite in the 1990s. His job included crawling 10 to 15 feet underground and greasing the belts that kept the kilns running.
With no flashlight, he worked in the sunlight that streamed down from the opening in the ground.
“In layman’s terms,” he said, “it looked like hell.”
It took him about 10 minutes to grease the four belts before surfacing again.
“I’d come out and it felt like my body was on fire from whatever was in the ground,” Zelinka said. Even now, his arms are pocked with burns. “I can’t tan,” he said. “If I do, I look like a Dalmatian.”
Also owned by Northeast Solite, a separate company called Oldover operated at the site. The Oldover facility was permitted to store, treat and burn hazardous waste, according to a 2010 report done by Golder Associates, an environmental consulting service hired by Solite.
The site and all its operations shut down by the late 1990s, according to the report. Since then, it has remained dormant, changing hands from Florida Solite Company to Stoneridge Farms, both daughter companies of Northeast Solite.
In his late 20s, while working for Solite, Zelinka had a heart attack that nearly killed him. While in the hospital, his doctors at Orange Park Medical noted high amounts of arsenic in his blood, he said. The World Health Organization says that chronic arsenic exposure is linked to cardiovascular disease.
Three miles away from Solite, a friend of Burke’s, Annette Barretta lives in a sprawling development next to ongoing highway construction. All around the earth is overturned, coloring the landscape like rust. A thin layer of silty dust covers the cars and mailboxes.
Barretta knew vaguely of the Solite site up the road, but worried mostly for Burke who lived right next to it. It wasn’t until 2021, when her 9-year-old daughter, Valarie, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an uncommon bone cancer, that she thought the two might be related.
The family has lived in Rolling Hills for 11 years. In that time, three of their neighbors on Hidden Meadows Court have had brain tumors, said Barretta.
“There are six households on that street that have had cases of cancer,” Burke said.
According to Barretta, Valarie’s doctors say there is no way to determine if her illness was caused by environmental factors, but tests have determined that she is not genetically predisposed to cancer.
Confirming a link between cancer and environmental contaminants can be a difficult process, according to Dr. Dejana Braithwaite, professor of surgery and epidemiology and Associate Director for Cancer and Population Sciences at The University of Florida.
“Cancer is a multifactorial disease that results from the combined influence of genetic and environmental factors, as well as lifestyle factors, so proving the specific association between cancer and environmental contaminants is not easy.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, Clay County has a 36.1% higher cancer incidence rate than the state and 47.2% higher rate than the country.
However, a more in-depth epidemiological study would have to be done to determine the health effects contaminants could have on residents, said Braithwaite.
“One of the reasons a cancer cluster is difficult to prove is because clinical and laboratory studies are often needed to confirm causation,” she said. “One of the challenges to investigating cancer clusters is that many cancers take years or even decades to develop. Because of these challenges many alleged cancer clusters remain uncertain or unproven despite extensive investigation.”
Last year, Burke herself was diagnosed with colon cancer and at age 13, one of her daughters had to have a hip replacement.
Her doctors at Mayo Clinic still don’t know what caused the bone to deteriorate, but Burke has her suspicions.
“Something ate away at her hip,” she said. “If you look up heavy metals, heavy metals do that to bone.”
For Burke, the rezoning was the catalyst she needed to get involved, but her daughter is who continues to drive her toward a resolution.
“I am a chiropractor. I’ve had a business in Clay County for 23 years now. I had never thought about being in politics but that set me in motion,” Burke said. “That’s why I ran.”
In April, the FDEP visited Solite and conducted testing alongside a private environmental consulting company, Matanzas Geosciences, hired by Danhour. They tested areas on the property where former employees alleged waste materials were buried, according to the FDEP’s report.
Last month, the FDEP released their results which showed elevated levels of arsenic present in the soil and groundwater on the property. The amount of arsenic in these locations exceeded the FDEP’s Soil Cleanup Target Levels.
In a letter to Galliano, the environmental manager at Northeast Solite, FDEP outlined the findings and said Stoneridge must complete a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act investigation. This is a law that establishes a framework for hazardous waste management.
In response to the FDEP’s most recent discovery, Galliano said Stoneridge and Solite will follow the FDEP’s requirements.
The news has not scared Danhour off. His plans, he said, are to clean up the property.
“Our recent purchase pledged $2 million towards those efforts, and we will continue to work on it until it is clean,” Danhour said. As to what he plans to build on the site, he said “that depends on the market once the property has been cleaned up.”
In the past, contaminants found at Solite include heavy metals like arsenic and lead, and other carcinogens like dioxin, according to FDEP and Golder reports.
Dioxins are a group of highly toxic chemical compounds often produced as a byproduct of municipal waste incineration, according to the EPA, like the waste burning kilns that operated at Solite.
Dioxins are also a component of agent orange, a herbicide used by the United States military during the Vietnam War associated with an entire alphabet of diseases according to the Department of Veterans Affairs website.
Joan Starnes, a retired nurse and Russell Landing resident, is particularly interested in dioxins. Throughout her career, she worked with veterans who were exposed to the chemical, including her brother-in-law, and suspects it could be affecting her community.
“Everybody knows about Agent Orange but you don’t hear about dioxins as much,” Starnes, 74, said. She’s been working to educate people in her neighborhood about its health effects.
The FDEP’s most recent testing did note the presence of dioxins, but they were below the state’s target levels.
However, a 2010 report by Golder showed that TCDD, a kind of dioxin, was found in the sediment of Mill Log Creek at concentrations above Human Health Based Sediment Quality Assessment Guidelines as outlined by the FDEP.
According to Dr. Leah Stuchal, associate research professor at UF’s Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology, TCDD is tightly bound to sediment and can travel with those particles over time.
“If TCDD is found in sediment near a former industrial site that burned municipal waste, a reasonable conclusion is that it was deposited from the air,” she said.
Depending on the concentration and exposure time, dioxins can cause varying health effects, according to Dr. Tracie Baker, associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Global Health at UF.
“In animal studies, even low levels of dioxins have been found to cause health effects as well as effects in subsequent generations. Exposure can be through diet, air, and contact with substances containing dioxins,” she said.
In 2006, according to the Golder report, Stoneridge was placed under a consent order by the FDEP requiring an investigation that would make them responsible for any corrective actions. Stoneridge is still under the FDEP’s consent order.
Some residents are worried that FDEP and Danhour’s testing is not thorough enough.
“Most assessment activities have occurred in the old processing area, which is approximately 264 acres,” said Kathryn Craver, director of external affairs at the FDEP’s northeast district office. The total property is 903 acres.
“There is no evidence of off-site contamination at this time,” Craver said.
Burke has paid out of pocket to test areas in her neighborhood for heavy metals. She is still waiting for those results but expects them by the end of the month.
She is also helping organize an independent task force with hopes of further exploring a connection between the Solite site and her community’s health issues.
The group held its first private meeting last month and includes Starnes, a cardiac surgeon, an environmental expert, an attorney, a paralegal, a reporter who covered Solite in the 90s and concerned residents.
Almost two decades ago, Burke and her husband built their house on a piece of land she called “a little slice of heaven,” long before she knew what lurked in the soil less than a mile away.
“We knew this was where we wanted to be from the beginning,” she said.
The quiet street, the trains barreling down the tracks in the distance, the sunny lawns and the neighbors who all know each other’s names.
Burke walked along the border of the Solite property, kicking up dirt in the heels she would wear to her daughter’s “Mean Girls” school play later that evening.
She pointed out the blue barrels poking up from where Solite employees buried them decades ago. But she also pointed out Starnes’ house across the way and mentioned the neighbors who put “Stop Toxic Solite” signposts in their front yards.
“The people here are amazing. We all look out for each other,” Burke said.
“It’s a beautiful place to live,” she said. “I’d hate to think that people will keep getting sick if we don’t do something about it.”