Carlos, 6, plays in the yard with his three-month-old puppy, Max.  When his grandmother, Mary Ann Jones, bought the house on 3118 NW 4th St and moved in with her extended family, she didn't realize the dangerous implications of living there. Tests revealed in January 2010 that dioxin levels inside her house are over a thousand times higher than what the state considers to be safe.

A Haunting Past

When Mary Ann Jones bought her house in Northwest Gainesville, the realtor said there might be noise every now and then, due to the nearby industrial facility. She was okay with that. The realtor didn’t mention that her grandchildren would be exposed, on a daily basis, to a deadly concentration of dioxins, which are known to cause cancer and a wide range of health problems, especially in kids.

“I felt like this man signed me a death sentence,” she said.

For slightly over a year, Jones lived on 3118 NW 4th St with her extended family, which includes three grandkids. The top of her fence is wrapped in barbed wire, which separates her backyard from the 90-acre patch of land previously owned by Koppers, Inc. She wants to move away, but doesn’t have the financial means to do so.

“I’m scared to death,” Jones said. “I like to garden, but now my plants are dead because I’m scared to touch them. We’re pretty much stuck here.”

Aaron, 3, attempts to climb the truck in his backyard. Ever since his family moved next door to the Superfund Site, Aaron has experienced frequent headaches and nosebleeds, as well as rashes and itchy skin. According to the World Health Organization, these are the first signs of dioxin poisoning, which causes nervous system damage and may lead to cancer.

Her younger grandkids – Carlos, 6, and Aaron, 3 – play outside every day without understanding the situation.

“We’re always telling them – if you drop anything on the ground, don’t pick it up and definitely don’t put it in your mouth. And always wash your hands when you come inside.”

Jones said she feels like no one has been there for her – not the local or state government, and certainly not the EPA. Her front yard is peppered with signs, which say things like, “Governor Crist – Where Are You?” and “Gainesville’s Dirty Little Secret is Out!”

In 1988, Koppers sold their property to Beazer East, a private developer currently responsible for working with the EPA to clean up and redevelop the area. Despite the property’s Superfund status, and despite the fact that Beazer owned the land, Koppers continued to operate their wood-treatment facility until 2009. That’s when Koppers decided to leave Gainesville, after investigations and bad publicity. Now that the operations are closed, the EPA has a chance to move faster.

After 27 years, the area is still considered a Superfund Site. Chris Bird of the Alachua County Department of Environmental Protection said the fact that Koppers was allowed to continue their operations for so long has substantially slowed down the EPA’s efforts to clean up the site.

“You can’t make a bed while someone is still sleeping in it,” Bird said.

Mitchell Brourman, a representative from Beazer East, said there are many reasons the process has taken so long. He acknowledged, however, that the continued operation of the Koppers facility was one of them, “to some degree.”

Mr. Dioxin, an eerie character created by Protect Gainesville Citizens Inc. to spread awareness, stands outside Wild Iris and waits to cross the street.

Local activist groups, including Protect Gainesville Citizens, Ban CCA, and the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Protection Group, have documented severe health complications experienced by neighborhood residents surrounding the site.

“We have decimated families,” said Maria Parsons, an officer of the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Protection Group. “Cancer, leukemia, kidney problems – in one family I know of, only two are left. Nine have died and the remaining two have cancer. We began to document this because the health department has not been there.”

Joe Prager, the founding officer of Ban CCA, said, “There have been reports of cancer clusters, large numbers of pet deaths from cancer, [and] more than one case of multiple sclerosis nearby.”

Tests performed by the city and state health departments indicate hazardous dioxin levels in an easement between NW 26 St and NW 30 Ave, just west of Koppers. Parents have been warned in a press release not to let their kids play in the area.

The press release also states, “Incidental ingestion (swallowing) of very small amounts of surface soil in the neighborhood north and west of Koppers is not likely to cause harm.”

Scott Miller, the EPA’s regional project manager, said evidence of cancer in the neighborhood residents has been “anecdotal” and that the EPA “has not observed that affect.”

“The Florida Department of Health is doing a study of cancers in the area,” Miller said. “They will probably be making a response to that specific question with respect to folks living there as well as animals.”

The edge of the Cabot-Koppers Superfund Site. Taken from the Jones family's yard by leaning a ladder against the barbed-wire fence.

For decades, the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Protection Group has not trusted the state, Beazer, or the EPA. By 2009, they finally had the means to seek help from several established law firms.

In January of 2010, an independent agency known as Xenobiotic Laboratories, Inc. tested fine dust particles from nine randomly selected houses within a two mile radius of the Superfund Site. According to Stephen Murakami from The Law Offices of Robert H. Weiss, their methods are scientifically sound and approved by the EPA.

“This is unique,” said Murakami. “Indoor tests are rarely performed [by government agencies]. Outdoor soil testing is their standard, as opposed to indoor tests where it counts – where people live, breathe, and make their beds.”

The state has determined that the maximum dioxin concentration for soil outside to be safe is 7 parts per trillion. Inside the nine houses tested, the average dioxin concentration was 400 parts per trillion. In one house, they were as high as 1.2 parts per billion.

“That’s about a thousand times higher than what the state determines to be safe for soil exposure,” Murakami said. “We’re not even talking about indoor exposure. That’s their standard for cleaning up the soil outside.”

The test results are yet to go public. Murakami said the situation is not unique or unexpected.

“We’ve been involved in Texas where Koppers has maintained one of the largest facilities in the country,” he said. “The chemicals they use escape from their sites into surrounding neighborhoods.”

Mary Ann Jones was recently informed of the tests by local activists. Since her family moved next door to the site, they’ve all experienced regular headaches. Her three-year-old grandson, Aaron, has experienced frequent nosebleeds.

“Also, there’s skin irritation,” she said. “We have these little bumps on our skin – we’ve started itching. That happened about four months after we moved here.”

According to a fact sheet from the World Health Organization, skin lesions are the first sign of dioxin poisoning. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system, and reproductive functions. Chronic exposure may lead to several types of cancer.

“The more I think about it, the angrier I get,” said Jones. “You can’t put no price on my life or my family. Why would you try to cover up something that you know is so deadly? Why do you think money is more important than the lives of my grandkids?”

Neighborhood contamination is not the only concern. What about Gainesville's water supply?