Something stinks in South Apopka

Florence Moss worked all her adult life as a fruit picker, cook and maid until five years ago, when she quickly began fading with a variety of ailments, including diabetes and shortness of breath. She died last June at the age of 83 of respiratory and heart failure.

Moss lived in a South Apopka suburb called Lake Jewell, a subdivision of 150 homes where death and illness are a way of life. Francina Boykin, Moss's granddaughter, counts 41 Lake Jewell residents she knows who have died in the last five years, many of whom had yet to see their 60th birthday. Their illnesses range from colon cancer to lupus to heart attacks. Another 21, Boykin says, are seriously ill, including her mother, who has a cyst on her liver.

Lake Jewell is also home to a disproportionately large number of public-works projects. Within a one-mile radius of the neighborhood are two wastewater treatment facilities, which together handle eight million gallons of sewage each day; an incinerator that burns nearly 2,000 pounds of medical waste per hour; and a landfill where contractors have dumped 4.5 million cubic yards of construction debris -- like concrete, wood and steel. The landfill, which abuts the backyard of Moss's home, rises 50 feet -- five stories -- in the air. It's so tall you can see it from almost anywhere in Lake Jewell.

With so much waste surrounding them, neighbors don't know which of the hazards, if any, are effecting their health. The neighborhood often is immersed in the smell of rotten eggs, caused by hydrogen sulfide released by the waste facilities, or decomposing wood in the landfill. According to county records, 18 air-quality and five noise complaints have been filed in the last five months. "Is it normal to have so many people sick in one area?" asks Boykin, who lives in an adjacent neighborhood called Lake Opal. "Some days it's just sickening. We get it from the west and east and from the south. You don't know who is stinking you out."

South Apopka is a poor, rural, minority community, just the kind of place waste-disposal industries love. Across America, many low-income communities bear a disproportionate number of pollution-related businesses -- places like Cancer Alley, a stretch of highway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge where the state of Louisiana has allowed petroleum companies to encroach on minority neighborhoods; Pensacola, where a wood-treatment plant produced a mound of toxic soil so high it is referred to as Mount Dioxin; and Hunts Point, N.Y., a Latino/African American community where Gov. George Pataki recently added to the garbage problems (a fertilizer plant, sewage plant, two dozen garbage transfer stations) by locating a power plant there.

Such neighborhoods are actively targeted by industry leaders. Two documents, known nationwide among environmental activists, indicate the waste industry's true intentions. A 1984 report prepared for the California Solid Waste Division, and another written in 1989 for the North Carolina Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Authority, identify communities least likely to resist businesses that handle pollution: older Southern and Midwestern rural areas where residents earn little money, are poorly educated and aren't politically involved.

"This is a serious problem," says Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Virginia-based watchdog group the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. "As a country, we make decisions about the manufacturing process. Based on that decision, someone is often sacrificed."

But what exactly is making South Apopka residents ill? That's a difficult question to answer. The incinerator, which burns waste 365 days a year, 22 hours a day, at temperatures above 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, is operated by Stericycle, a nationwide distributor of hospital products whose nine incinerators are the most owned by a single company in the country. Medical waste has a high concentration of PVC plastic from things like intravenous bags and disposable bedpans.

A byproduct of burning PVC plastic is dioxin, a known carcinogen. Dioxin can escape through an incinerator smokestack and appear in the ash residue after medical waste is burned.

But according to Marie Driscoll, an Orange County Environmental Protection Division analyst, there "have not been any air compliance issues" relating to the incinerator since it began operating in 1992. Further, the incinerator's ash is shipped 30 miles away to a landfill in southeast Orange County and monitoring by the state Department of Environmental Protection has found no evidence of dioxin or other carcinogens such as arsenic, barium or silver in the groundwater near the landfill.

Operated by industry giant Waste Management, the landfill is supposed to contain only debris from construction sites. But Lake Jewell residents complain that the landfill has attracted flocks of buzzards and other birds, leaving behind a large supply of guano.

"My car is supposed to be blue," says Johnie L. Bryant, a retired farmer whose 47-year-old daughter-in-law died of a respiratory illness in his Lake Jewell home several months ago. "But it's turned white. The ground is just covered with this stuff."

The bird crap isn't the only thing that scares Lake Jewell residents. It's what the birds are after in the landfill, which has caught on fire more than once, that concerns them. They suspect Stericycle employees, instead of burning medical waste, have dumped it into the landfill.

According to Jim McDonald, the county's solid-waste project manager, the birds are not part of a larger problem at the landfill. "Our office has received and evaluated a number of complaints about birds and found them not to be an environmental concern," he says. A field report from his office dated Jan. 2 said there were "no visible signs" the birds were eating trash or garbage.

But even if tests revealed dioxins in the water or air, it would be difficult for Lake Jewell residents to convince a jury or public officials they were becoming sick because of the large amounts of pollution in the area. Cancer clusters, as they are known, are difficult, if not impossible, to prove, because so many factors are involved, such as diet, genetics and lifestyle.

Bill Toth, Orange County's epidemiologist, says he has yet to discover a link between contaminants and disease in his 30 years on the job. "There's a perception that all cancers are created by environmental exposure," he says. "In fact, less than 5 percent are."

For Lake Jewell residents to prove that a cancer cluster exists, they will have to link a known carcinogen to a specific body tissue.

For example, prolonged exposure to benzene, a solvent in everything from ink to petroleum to insecticides, is known to cause certain types of leukemia. Meanwhile, it's impossible to determine if Lake Jewell's death rate is worse than the overall county rate because death rates are recorded at the county -- not neighborhood -- level. (The death rate for nonwhite Orange County residents is actually lower than the death rate for white residents, 6.3 per 1,000 resident annually vs. 7.0 per 1,000 residents.)

County officials have thus far taken the stance that Lake Jewell residents should grin and bear the deterioration of their neighborhood. After all, the area's cheap land prices and low water table attracted the waste industry. Neighbors should be content that after years of neglect, the county is trying to spruce up the area, spending millions of dollars putting in water and sewer lines, sidewalks and streetlights, says the county. "It would be a happy occasion for many of us at Orange County if rather than casting stones, you focused on what might unite South Apopka rather than what divides it," Chairman Richard Crotty wrote Francina Boykin in December.

Of course, Crotty can afford to be glib. He lives in affluent Belle Isle; the closest landfill or incinerator is 10 miles away.

If Crotty wanted to focus on uniting South Apopka, he could have adopted the policy of the American Planning Association, one of the country's most respected planning organizations. The APA says local governments should be doing all they can "to ensure that waste-management facilities are not being disproportionately placed in low income and minority communities."

"Ethical planners," the APA policy continues, "will empower the entire community, including low income and minority populations, to participate in siting waste-management facilities and will look to where the total array of such facilities are sited when making recommendations for new sites."

At this point, some Lake Jewell residents would rather the county buy their property and relocate them.

"If I had somewhere to go, I would have been gone," Bryant says. "It is like that with a lot of us down here. But I wouldn't give $50 for my place."

Instead, Orange County officials showed Lake Jewell what it thinks of the residents by authorizing an expansion of the county's wastewater treatment facility and permitting a new landfill across the street from the Waste Management construction-debris dump. Though the new landfill has yet to accept garbage, the owner, John Buttrey, has already applied for a permit to double the landfill's capacity.

That in itself should be enough to make Lake Jewell residents feel sick to their stomachs for years to come.

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