by Ed Tiley Editor,
The city of St. Marks, on the eastern edge of the Forgotten Coast in Wakulla County recently celebrated receiving $400,000 in grants from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the City of Tallahassee’s Community Redevelopment Agency to finish reclamation of the site of the old St. Marks Refinery. The site was previously the location of the only crude oil refinery in Florida.
Built in 1954, the refinery manufactured jet fuel and asphalt. The refinery was shut in 1985, but asphalt production continued until 1998. Although problems were suspected for a long time, in 2002 dioxins were discovered in groundwater at the Sam O. Purdom Power Generating Plant owned and operated by the City of Tallahassee since 1952, which is next door to the refinery site. That discovery led to recent developments.
According to a document published by the Northwest Florida Water Management District’s SWIM program in 2004, the old refinery “is a 55-acre site with significant environmental contamination from decades of asphalt and petroleum production. Contaminants found in sampling include dioxin, oils and grease, organics, and pentachlorophenol (PCP) (FDEP 2003). Dioxin has been found in the soil, ground water, and sediment (FDEP 2003). Contamination has been capped and contained by a berm that limits runoff from the site, and FDEP has overseen removal of the worst petroleum-contaminated soil.”
In 2004 Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (FLDEP) filed a lawsuit against the owners of the site after years of foot-dragging, and a cleanup agreement with previous owners wasn’t honored. FLDEP claimed in that lawsuit that they had spent more than $12 million dismantling storage tanks, removing contaminated soil and disposing of hazardous waste. The plant hasn’t operated as a refinery since 1985, but asphalt was manufactured there until 1998.
In a February 2004 article in Forgotten CoastLine, I noted that, “Dioxin is a generic name that refers to a class of chemicals second only in toxicity to radioactive waste. A dose no larger than a grain of salt can kill a human. One pound of the compound would kill the entire population of the United States and Canada. In lesser dosages dioxin has been shown to cause birth defects and cancer as well as other illnesses. Adverse health effects have been attributed to concentrations of the chemical in body fat at levels of only three parts per trillion.
“Dioxins can be formed in several ways during the manufacture or burning of organic chemicals and plastics that contain chlorine. Dioxin is the chemical that triggered the abandonment of the Love Canal area near Niagara Falls, NY, and the entire town of Times Beach, Missouri. An incinerator operation was conducted on the St. Marks Refinery site previous to 1985. DEP officials believe that incinerator was the source of the dioxin contamination, but aren’t completely sure.
“What is clear is that the pollution found at the site has migrated into the St. Marks River. Sediments have been tested that show dioxin levels as high as 12,812 parts per trillion in pond sediment at the site itself, and as high as 3.10 parts per trillion in sediments in the river near the site. Dioxin levels of .03 parts per trillion are considered unsafe in drinking water. Two groundwater samples near the site showed 41 and 173 parts per trillion respectively.”
Although the lawsuit to reclaim clean-up costs was a failure, in 2005 the city of St. Marks acquired the property through bankruptcy proceedings. Since then, city officials have been unrelenting in their efforts to find funding to complete the job. In 2009 the city got an EPA Brownfields grant to determine what needed to be done. The US Environmental Protection Agency defines a brownfield as an industrial location previously polluted to the point that makes it unsafe to redevelop the land for other uses.
In April 2014, a “groundbreaking” ceremony was held to kick off the last bit of remediation necessary to enable reuse of 20+ acres of the old refinery site. With the addition of a $200,000 subgrant from the Tallahassee Brownfields Coalition to a 2013 grant from the US EPA of $200,000, the City of St. Marks hopes to complete work by 2015 so they will be able to create a 22-acre business park which will be named the St. Marks Innovation Park in an effort to attract companies that can offer employment opportunities to area residents.
In a recent article in the Tallahassee Democrat, Allen Hobbs, mayor of St. Marks, said that one of the problems St. Marks has is that young folks tend to move away from the area as soon as they graduate school or get married saying, “If we can get something in here that’s clean and generates jobs, that’s our goal. It would give our people something to do and a reason to stay.”
St. Marks is an area steeped in history. Going back to before Florida became a state, the area has had an important role in military and industrial affairs. In returning the old refinery site to productivity, the City of St. Marks hopes to secure an important role going forward as well.