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Solite: Saga of coverups, corrosion, contamination

State, county leaders join fight to block construction until toxic site is investigated

By Lee Wardlaw lee@claytodayonline.com
Posted 3/23/23

LAKE ASBURY – Developments continue to unfold about Solite, the former aggregate kiln company that ran a reckless operation from the 1950s-1990s off County Road 209-A in the Lake Asbury/Green Cove …

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Solite: Saga of coverups, corrosion, contamination

State, county leaders join fight to block construction until toxic site is investigated


Posted

LAKE ASBURY – Developments continue to unfold about Solite, the former aggregate kiln company that ran what residents said was a reckless operation from the 1950s-1990s off County Road 209-A with no regard for the environment and the community.

Burning jet fuels and other chemicals, hiding barrels and more were part of the daily operation on the large 900-acre property tucked deep in the backwoods of Clay County.

As three generations of residents must face multiple health and quality of life issues, the drama between the ex-plant, a shell company, a potential property buyer, local officials and the community has continued.

The political, legal and environmental saga continued after a resident witnessed excavation on the property two weeks ago. County Commissioner Kristen Burke also received a fresh batch of emails from current and former residents, which she forwarded to Florida Rep. Sam Garrison (R-Fleming Island), the FDEP and Clay Today. The complaints detailed severe health and quality of life issues.

In addition, an anonymous expert provided email testimony on a scientific report relating to the plant from 2022.

The latest significant political development was this:

Florida Sen. Jennifer Bradley (R-Fleming Island) and Garrison spoke with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection during a 90-minute phone call on March 16.

The sale of the property was to be finalized between Stoneridge Farms and Danhour Group CEO Micheal Danhour on Monday, March 20, the FDEP told Bradley and Garrison.

William D. Preston, a Tallahassee-based attorney representing Stoneridge Farms and Danhour, did not return a phone call from Clay Today to confirm whether the sale occurred.

One thing seems to be certain for now: the consent order for Solite won’t be amended, FDEP confirmed to officials.

That could change if the sale to Danhour is completed, but it will continue to be upheld until Bradley and Garrison wait to hear back from the FDEP. A moratorium was passed on placing residential zoning on the property at the county commission meeting on Nov. 22.

The consent order applies to all 900 acres, but only 264 acres are currently being tested under the FDEP’s current work plan. That’s is because the agency believes the remaining acreage is clean, Burke said.

The consent order won’t be modified unless Burke, Bradley, Garrison and residents get advanced notice, and if another purchaser were to buy the parcel, the status of the consent order would not change, Burke confirmed to Clay Today.

New evidence was provided to the state agency during a recent phone call meeting that included Burke, County Attorney Courtney Grimm, County Manager Howard Wannamaker, three ex-employees of Solite and the FDEP.

“(Not) testing the remaining acreage is what we have a problem with, and FDEP still feels that the remaining acreage has been clean since 2006. (The recent evidence provided by ex-employees) is (why) we have a problem with (no current testing on the remaining acreage), due to the new information provided to the FDEP from the ex-employees (testimony) and residents (emails),” Burke said.

Other details from the meeting also reveal one significant concern: Danhour or Stoneridge Farms are currently allowed to clear-cut the property.

Because of that, Bradley and Garrison expressed their concern to the FDEP.

“So their question to the FDEP was, ‘What are we supposed to tell the residents as they are upset and fearful as we know contaminants are most likely in the moisture in the trees, and that if the trees are disturbed, the contaminants can get into our waterways and air?’” Burke said in a social media post to the local Facebook group, Save Russell Landing/Stop Toxic Solite last week.

After the meeting, Bradley and Garrison told Burke they told the FDEP it was important for a third party to conduct an independent study of the property.

The legislators further stressed the consent order wouldn’t be modified, and neither the state agency nor anyone else could stop the property sale.

Bradley, Garrison, and Burke, County Commissioners and Grimm are seeking to have the remaining 600 acres tested by an independently-hired consultant.

Then, there’s the other piece of the puzzle: what has happened at the property over the last two weeks?

Danhour and the FDEP conducted a walk-through of the property on Wednesday, March 8, at one of the 14 areas identified by ex-employees as zones that could be potentially marked as contaminated on the map.

Danhour and the FDEP discovered either one or multiple fiberglass barrels. The number of barrels found wasn’t disclosed, according to Burke.

On Wednesday, March 17, representatives of Golder, an agency that conducts environmental testing and assessments, were on the property. Solite has been a client of the company for several years.

During their stroll through the property, Golder checked peninsulas that connect to the main lake bordering the plant’s central operation.

The waterways are believed to be part of a system of ponds, peninsulas and lakes designed to hide the containers and toxic chemicals, according to ex-employee and Solite whistleblower Micheal Zelinka.

While the nearby lake is believed to be more than 100 feet deep and contain items like cars, trucks and boom lines, Golder tested at only a depth of eight feet in the peninsulas, Burke said.

A truck also returned to the site on Monday, March 20.

Area resident Dan Mills, whose home borders the alleged toxic site on Buckeye Road, provided an eyewitness account of the vehicles entering and exiting the property. He also talked with employees.

“We saw a piece of equipment go in on a trailer, a truck hauling a mini-excavator. Then, a little while after, there was another truck behind it. They were there for several hours. We could hear them, and it sounded like it was all going on around the lake. Then, five to six hours later, they were coming out, so I went down and talked to them. They said they were digging test holes to make samples. (The employee) elaborated a little bit, and another gentleman in another truck said that he was a ‘geo tech’ guy and that they were taking samples to the lab to be tested,” he said.

Then, his account from just three days ago: “The white truck, the second truck that came in (the first time), was coming out of the property at 8:30 a.m.,” Mills said.

Mills said he had similar interactions with surveyors in 2017, 2018 and a month ago. Six or seven years ago, one employee told Mills they were surveying the property where homes would eventually be built.

Construction isn’t allowed while the moratorium and consent order is in place.

More pejorative details are now in the “Solite Files” from scathing emails from 14 current and/or former residents obtained by Clay Today that allege horrific mishaps by the company.

Lee Bishop grew up on CR 209-B in the 1980s and 1990s, where he and friends would sneak on the property to play and explore, mainly around Doctor Ira Drive.

“We would climb on big dirt hills around the lakes. When the water was low, you could see the tops of trucks and tractors in the bottom of the ponds,” he said.

Bishop said he and his friends would stick to areas 10, 11, and 12 on the Solite map and that a tall dirt perimeter ran along the fence line where barrels are believed to be hidden. Bishop also said ormer snail ponds that are no longer on the map used to exist.

“They built tall dirt walls around the edge of the property. Crazy that my playground was toxic a dump,” he wrote to Burke.

Robert Ownby has lived in the area since 1984, shifting from 1776 Oak Grove Dr. to the corner of CR 209-A and North Fork Road in 1992. The two properties in the Solite area are just 1.8 miles apart.

He served as a firefighter on the Lake Asbury Volunteer Fire Department in the mid-1980s, where he and other volunteers would go to Solite to train and familiarize themselves with the area.

“I remember seeing rows and rows of 55-gallon drums and the smell of chemicals in the air. It was spooky to me,” Ownby said. “I just had an unsettling feeling about the place. I’ve always wondered why we never received any (service) calls to Solite. No accidents, fires, or chemical spills over the years.”

After moving to Oak Grove Drive, he heard scraping clay from the ground.

“It sounded like they were coming through the bedroom wall,” he said.

“Treetops appeared bright, reddish and orange glow. There seemed to be a white, mist-like substance emitting from the glow.”

He later learned kilns operated at full speed during nighttime, nicknamed “balls to the wall,” according to Zelinka.

Another witness that provided email testimony to FDEP was former American military hero Henry Danley, a retired Command Master Chief for the U.S. Navy stationed at NAS Cecil Field from 1987-1992.

After earning his position as Command Master Chief, Danley said he took the opportunity to question one of the personnel loading a truck, inquiring what the material was.

The employee told him it was oil laced with toxic PCBs scheduled to be destroyed by fire at Solite.

“This was and still is of great concern to me since I lived at 2974 Russell Road,” he said. The home is just a stone’s throw from Solite: west and across the railroad tracks of the entrance of the former plant.

“Their burning of the oil left residue on my vehicles and there were times when the air would be full of smelly, oily smoke and raining ash,” he said.

Patricia Foss relocated to Green Cove Springs with her husband, Doug, in the mid-1980s. After she started noticing suspicious signs at the plant in the late 1980s, health problems possibly linked to the plant began to arise in her family.

“My immediate family endured multiple symptoms, including heart, digestive issues and cancer. My son, Douglas, has been affected by Bradycardia, which has resulted in five pacemakers since the age of 16. I have had four lumps removed from my breasts and various treatments,” Foss said.

Also, her daughter, Kimberly, who was 13 years old, was diagnosed with Giardiasis, which Giardia forms. This tiny parasite is found in soil, food and water that was contaminated with feces, and died two years ago from Ventricular fibrillation, a dangerous type of arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat.

Her husband suffers from heart issues as well.

Debbi Spradlin moved to the neighborhood in 1983.

“Our little neighborhood was in shock when we started noticing an occasional tanker truck with crossed bones and ‘Hazardous’ on the sides of the tankers heading into Solite down a tiny road alongside the railroad tracks late at night. It wasn’t long until the same tankers, all with out-of-state plates, became more noticeable and multiplying in number,” she said.

She knew that something wasn’t right.

“The General Manager of Solite, John Kuiken, after Solite closed, told me personally that there was so much hazardous waste buried in barrels all over the property, that it would not be habitable in our grandchildren’s, their grandchildren’s, or their grandchildren’s lifetime. Sadly, he passed away from cancer last October,” she said.

Burke said she would like to focus on three main goals.

First, it would be to verify that the FDEP is still actively managing the portion of the Solite property under the consent order and does not allow for residential usage until a complete clean-up is done.

Then, the commissioner said she would like to work with FDEP to review the rest of the property based on the widespread allegations of chemical dumping.

“If contamination is verified, then the rest of the property would also not be suitable for residential use until properly cleaned up,” she said.

Next, she would like to work with FDEP to investigate potential violations stemming from stormwater runoff from the former Solite property through the canal and into Black Creek.

he final troubling detail of the “Solite Files” series is an anonymous expert witness in an email response to his thoughts regarding a six-page document completed on May 23, 2022. A Corrective Measures Study Addendum reviewed by the University of Florida Center for Environment and Human Toxicology and the FDEP Business and District Support Program dated Feb. 9, 2021, presents testing results from the Solid Waste Management Unit 11 Scrubber Pond and the SWMU-12.

“It appears that FDEP may not be fully on-board with what Stoneridge Farms wants to do,” the scientist said.

Without a map, it will be hard to know if the lake, where much of the alleged dumping occurred, was included in the assessment and testing, the source said.

During tests, Hyalella Azteca, a small crustacean amphipod similar to shrimp, was found at the bottom of bodies of water.

“They are good indicators of the health of sediment, as they are sensitive to various metals, pesticides and other contaminants. The testing indicated that these amphipods were adversely affected by contaminants,” the source said.

The FDEP is likely to take some course of action, he suggests.

“FDEP believes, and the reviewer concurs, that doing nothing is unacceptable,” the source said.