Tallahassee — Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park has a dirty secret. The park is dangerously contaminated but state officials have blocked efforts to assess or clean up the problem, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group is asking the Inspector General for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to get to the bottom of the murky mess.
Located on the northern tip of Key Largo in the Florida Keys, Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park shelters two federally listed species (the Key Largo Woodrat and the Key Largo Cotton Mouse) found nowhere else. Prior to becoming a state park, however, part of the land was used as a Nike missile launch site which included a popular skeet shooting range. These prior uses, especially the range, left a toxic legacy. In 2003, the DEP hired a consulting firm to survey the area, leading to a site investigation in 2006.
That site investigation, which PEER obtained under public record laws, collected soil samples from the former skeet range showing arsenic and lead levels exceeding both residential and industrial exposure limits. Samples from the park’s mangrove areas were no better. They showed lead and arsenic levels exceeding industrial direct exposure limits and antimony exceeding residential limits. Besides these toxic metals, sampling also detected high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), such as benzene.
DEP park officials, however, prevented the consulting firm from opening any monitoring wells or removing contaminated soil. As a result, the full extent of contamination remains unknown.
“This is outrageous. DEP has known about serious toxic contamination in one of its own parks for half a dozen years and has not lifted a finger,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. “If this was some mom-and-pop gas station DEP would have thrown the book at them, but the agency somehow exempts itself from its own rules.”
The PEER complaint details the state rules that DEP ignored at the Key Largo park, including:
- Notice must be given to the public that the site is contaminated, including warning signs;
- DEP must fully analyze the area (including groundwater and surface water) where hazardous wastes are found to determine the exact nature of the contaminants and the risks they pose to people and the environment; and
- DEP must develop and execute a plan to clean up the contaminated site.
The surface waters bordering Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park are Outstanding Florida Waters and thus entitled to the highest level of protection that can be afforded by the state. They are particularly susceptible to contamination due to the area’s porous soils, high water table and strong tides.
“We are asking the Inspector General to find out why the DEP violated its own very clear rules designed to protect our citizens and our environment,” added Phillips. “At Key Largo, DEP did not just drop the ball but kicked it over the fence hoping no one would ever find it.”