Jacksonville neighbors worried about exposure to toxic chemicals

Heavy metal contamination left behind at former wood treatment plant

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Cleanup is underway at a Superfund site in Northwest Jacksonville, where neighbors fear the proper precautions aren’t being taken to contain the spread of toxic materials. 

For over 30 years, residents have endured pollution coming from the former Fairfax Street Wood Treaters plant, a 12-acre property located near two elementary schools, a day care center and a residential neighborhood.

The now-defunct wood treatment plant is considered one of the most contaminated sites in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which placed the facility on its National Priorities List in September 2012.

Over the years, neighbors have complained of health issues and difficulty breathing. Now, they’re concerned that ongoing efforts to remove contaminated soil and debris may be kicking traces of dangerous chemicals into the air. 

“I bought a house down the street years ago,” neighbor Eddie Rogers told News4Jax. “I got cancer. Everything that causes it, I got.”

Rogers is one of several residents who claim living near this site has made them sick. News4Jax interviewed former construction workers in 2015, who said they stacked lumber coated with toxic chemicals. They too had major health issues.

From 1980 to 2010, workers at the facility treated utility poles and lumber products using chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a wood preservative, and then let them drip-dry. According to the EPA, that chemical seeped into the ground.

When the owners, Wood Treaters LLC, filed for bankruptcy and later shuttered the plant in 2010, they also left behind above-ground storage tanks containing high levels of heavy metals including arsenic, chromium and copper.

The EPA took short-term steps to clean up the site in 2010 in response to a request from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, including removing those tanks in addition to a mix of contaminated soil, sludge and debris.

As part of those efforts, the regulatory agency also hauled away contaminated soil from the playground at nearby Susie E. Tolbert Elementary School and tainted water and sediment from a retention pond located on school property.

On Thursday, Sky4 drone video captured students playing on an outdoor basketball court right next to the site. Residents who spoke with News4Jax were worried because they didn’t see crews using any tarps to keep the dust in place.

“They need to cover up that stuff,” said Annette Burroughs, who lives in the area. “They need to do more about it because it’s still contamination. It’s bad for us around here.”

It’s not just the site or the schools that have been touched by the chemicals, either. The EPA previously reported finding contamination at several nearby residences, saying people shouldn’t live or work near the property.

For some, like Burroughs, picking up and moving is easier said than done. 

“You know, I got bronchitis, asthma, I got cancer, so it’s bad. You know I been sick a lot, so I’m catching hell. Excuse my language. It’s hard for me.”