This week's crime report for Clay County Florida, provided by the Clay County Sheriff's Office.
LAKE ASBURY – Michael Zelinka is a former employee of Solite, an aggregate kiln company that had more than 40 years at Country Road 209-A from the 1950s to the 1990s. He worked at the Lake …
LAKE ASBURY – Michael Zelinka is a former employee of Solite, an aggregate kiln company that had more than 40 years at Country Road 209-A from the 1950s to the 1990s. He worked at the Lake Asbury area-based plant from 1990-1991 and 1992-1995 and resided at the nearby Russell Baptist Church, which was a half-mile from the site.
He was one of the three ex-employees who provided recent testimony to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in a phone meeting that included County Commissioner Kristen Burke, County Attorney Courtney Grimm and County Manager Howard Wanamaker.
In a recent interview with Clay Today, Zelinka provided a corroborating statement, with his claims exposing the company to several potentially heinous safety and environmental malpractices.
“If you want to know anything about the safety history of the place, it was nonexistent,” he said.
While working with Solite, Zelinka greased the kilns’ bearings and unloaded plastic, metal and fiberglass barrels with a Bobcat machine.
Greasing the bearings required Michael to crawl dangerously into deep nooks and crannies in the ground without wearing protective gear.
“While I was down there, I felt like my skin started to burn,” Zelinka said. “When I got out of there, I complained about it, but they told me it would just go away. They told me, ‘It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.’”
The company would hide the truth from employees about the damaging effects of the reckless practices that they were performing, Zelinka said.
Zelinka wasn’t the only employee without protective clothing. Instead, nobody was required to wear it. But the lies and lack of transparency went further than that, the former employee claimed.
He said one ex-employee once jumped into “the scrubber pond” to relieve the pain from the burning heat.
But then, the individual was burned even worse. He said that the pond had acid in it, which ate away at his clothes and skin.
Zelinka said potholes in the road were fixed with a contaminated pile of debris and tables where people ate on Earth Day was washed in a toxic pond, and fish and wildlife on the property would develop cancerous tumors.
Zelinka said that once, he and two coworkers took out a canoe for a fishing trip at the main lake bordering the plant on the property during a break on a night shift.
The ex-employee said that one of his coworkers took a floodlight and pointed down towards the bottom of the body of water, where he witnessed a dragline, boom arm, cars and trucks and more, which included “everything they didn’t want or couldn’t use anymore.”
The whistleblower also claimed several other egregious evils from the company, listing several barrels buried and hidden on the property, which included a system of ponds, peninsulas and lakes utilized to hide the containers and their toxic chemicals.
Zelinka claimed barrels were buried under berms and dumped into the woods off Country Road 209-A, where homes are now built.
He suffered from a heart attack during his first stint with the plant, and doctors also found a high level of arsenic in his blood. Zelinka isn’t the only one in his family that has suffered from illness, though.
His mother, who lived a mile from the plant, died of breast cancer, and it’s even possible that his 7-year-old son could be suffering from the effects of the former Solite site to this day.
Zelinka’s son had 11 teeth pulled during an operation last week, and he said another child died at birth.
The problems of Michael and his family could be the beginning of health and safety risks linked to the plant that closed more than 27 years ago.
The plight of residents in the area has attracted the attention of representatives from the Florida House and the Senate.
“I want to make sure our county and the land owners (in the area) get the information for every bit of information we need,” said Florida Rep. Sam Garrison (R-Fleming Island). “At some point, the (Department of Environmental Protection) made the determination nothing should happen there. The order should stay in place. Period.
“We need to be 100% certain there is no danger to the community. We need to err on the side of caution.”
On Feb. 21, Burke hosted a private meeting at Russell Baptist for those in the area whose health has been negatively affected could have the opportunity to meet. Each individual could see where they lived compared to the former plant, the diseases they contracted, and the year in which they were diagnosed. She also received their input on other people who have passed away, and the illnesses they lived with and pinpointed their former residence concerning Solite.
Burke is also seeking out a class-action lawsuit for residents and considering hiring an attorney.
Stoneridge Farms, a shell company with the same address as Solite, is not allowed to build homes on the approximately 900-acre property.
That’s because the Clay County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a measure placing a moratorium on the rezoning of the property on Nov. 23, 2021, for one year. That moratorium was extended during the BCC’s meeting on Nov. 22 meeting, which denied Stoneridge Farms an opportunity to seek residential zoning for at least the remainder of this year.
The property is currently zoned as “Solite.”
No one can stop Stoneridge Farms from conducting a sale of the property, but Burke said that her top priority is to continually do everything in her power to stop Solite from being taken off of the consent order for the entire property and hold the company responsible for the testing of the remainder of the property, which totals approximately 700 acres.
“We need the consent order to clean the entire 900 acres until the ‘clean’ 600 acres are tested due to the evidence we have provided to FDEP of the entire property, and Solite should be responsible until testing and cleanup are complete,” Burke said.
Along with the moratorium, BCC is also seeking to help residents, which they expressed in a two-page email sent to the FDEP on March 2.
The email was addressed to FDEP secretary Shawn Hamilton and Environmental Administrator Michelle Smith and aimed to address vast concerns relating to the parcel.
“We request that the FDEP take every step to ensure the safety of Clay County citizens and our environment. To that end, our request specifically includes the updated testing for the 600 acres and financial assurance for the cleanup of the 264 acres and the possible cleanup of the 600 acres,” the end of the letter reads, which is signed by Board Chairman Betsy Condon.
Florida Sen. Jennifer Bradley (R-Fleming Island) has also been working with Burke and Grimm to ensure the property won’t be developed until a review is completed. The group will meet with Garrison and the FDEP this week to determine if new evidence of contamination has been found.
Thus far, the FDEP’s only knowledge of contamination has existed in the portion of the property estimated at 200-264 acres where former tests have already detected arsenic, lead and cyanide in the soil.
Solite would likely seek to have the consent order reassigned to Danhour Group CEO Michael Danhour, so they could potentially begin excavating the land.
Danhour, who has long been part of the process, is the likely buyer Stoneridge is seeking to sell the land to, which is information that was confirmed by the DEP in a phone call with Burke three weeks ago.
Burke reiterates her belief that Stoneridge Farms would seek to cut the timber. If work were to be done, it’s possible chemicals could be jarred loose and released into the atmosphere.
“As far as we were told by the FDEP, if Solite was released from the 600 acres, this would not stop them from excavating and cutting down the trees and doing everything they want to. They want to make money on it. They’re just going to drain the property of any kind of value they can get from it and leave. That’s definitely our concern,” she said.
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