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Florida knew prison well could be contaminated but let women keep drinking

By Max Chesnes and Christopher O’Donnell, Max Chesnes and Christopher O’Donnell, Tampa Bay Times
Published: March 3, 2024, 6:00am
2 Photos
The Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County. Efforts to get state funding to place the prison and nearby homes on county water over the past two years have failed.
The Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County. Efforts to get state funding to place the prison and nearby homes on county water over the past two years have failed. (Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

OCALA, Fla. — It’s no secret that the groundwater around the Florida State Fire College has been highly contaminated for years.

State health officials began warning nearby homeowners in 2019 that well water could damage their health after testing revealed groundwater around the college contained harmful human-made chemicals at levels more than 170 times higher than the state considers safe.

It’s no mystery where the pollution came from either. For years, firefighters at the college trained with foam extinguishers laced with chemicals that leached into groundwater. The chemicals, which have been phased out of industrial use in the United States, are classified as carcinogens and have been linked to other health issues, including cancer, thyroid issues, weakened immune systems and irregular menstruation

The cleanup — in a rural part of Marion County that relies on water pumped from the ground — has taken the Florida Department of Environmental more than four years and is still ongoing. Contaminated soil has been removed from the college and the state provided bottled water and money for filtration systems to homeowners whose wells tested above safe levels.

But inmates at Lowell Correctional Institution, a 2,400-bed women’s prison across the street from the fire college, say they weren’t told about the potential risks in their tap water, even as state data showed that contamination had spread to the prison.

State environment officials warned the Florida Department of Corrections in a December 2022 email that the contamination was spreading south toward the prison and asked to dig a monitoring well on the Lowell campus. Within four months, testing from the well confirmed that the groundwater beneath the prison contained chemical compounds from the foam at almost three times the level considered safe by the state, records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show.

The Department of Environmental Protection confirmed that finding in a June notice sent to the Department of Corrections’ Tallahassee office. The notice listed both Lowell and the neighboring Florida Women’s Reception Center to the east. That 1,235-bed facility houses newly incarcerated women in addition to serving as an in-patient mental health and short-sentence institution.

But state officials took no action for eight months, allowing the women to continue to drink, wash and eat food cooked in water from supply wells that had not been tested for the foam chemicals since 2018, state records show.

When contacted by the Tampa Bay Times at the start of February, corrections officials said that the wells used for drinking water were tested regularly and that the prison “has a reliable and non-contaminated water source.” But records show those monthly tests were limited to checking for bacteria like E-coli and fecal coliform and therefore wouldn’t detect contamination from the fire college.

Although the contamination notice was issued in June, corrections spokesperson Kayla McLaughlin told the Times she was unaware of it. She said the department would only test for the chemicals if advised to do so by state environmental regulators. On Feb. 16, the Times provided corrections officials a copy of the June notice. Within one week, state officials completed a test for the chemicals in the prison’s drinking water, the first in more than five years.

The results, certified by the state’s laboratory program, showed low levels of the contamination at a level that the state considers safe, although one well close to the Women’s Reception Center tested three times higher than a proposed drinking water maximum contamination level for the chemicals set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Water safety became an issue when several women at Lowell filed grievances fearing that their drinking water was tainted by the foam chemicals. Shauna Taylor, who is about halfway through a 12-year prison sentence for aggravated child abuse and neglect, filed hers to the secretary of the Department of Corrections in August. “Please provide me safe drinking water and send me to an outside medical specialist,” she wrote.

Adding to Taylor’s unease was that she never saw guards drink tap water, she told the Times. Prisoners can purchase bottled water but the $1.15 cost is out of reach for many at the prison who have no income.

Her grievance was denied.

“I think they feel we deserve less because we’re prisoners, that because we’re here, we don’t deserve treatment and proper care,” Taylor said.

In their complaints, the women also cited two requests from Marion County for the state to pay for a pipeline nearly seven miles long to deliver clean drinking water to the prison, the fire college and nearby residents. Both were rebuffed by Florida lawmakers the past two years. The county has submitted another request of $7 million this year.

The discrepancy in results between monitoring and drinking supply wells may be because drinking water is pumped from as deep as 350 feet in the ground while pollution monitoring wells sample water from between 35 and 75 feet.

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The aquifer around Ocala isn’t partitioned by a thick upper layer of sediment, meaning water from different depths often mixes over time. Florida’s springs also recycle groundwater back up to the surface.

“I would recommend that they continue monitoring over time,” said Kurt Pennell, an environmental engineering professor at Brown University who studied at University of Florida and was told about the levels around the prison.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection plans to dig more monitoring wells in the next few months to see how far the pollution has spread and determine next steps, spokeswoman Alexandra Kutcha said.

A vulnerable population

The chemicals from the fire college are known collectively as PFAS, which is an acronym for a group of polyfluoroalkyl substances prized for their durability. They have been used since the 1940s in consumer and industrial products including leather, carpeting, nonstick cookware, furniture and clothing.

The chemicals break down at an extremely slow pace, which means they can remain in people, and in nature, for decades. Hence their nickname: “forever chemicals.”

Another well-known use for these chemicals is firefighting foam. In 2018, Florida State Fire College officials told state environment regulators they had used chemical-laden foam for years, and stored it in drums on campus. Crews removed 16 containers of foam from the school’s property in 2019. According to its spokesperson, Devin Galetta, the college no longer uses the foam and staff there believe it hasn’t been used in at least a decade.

Once in the body, these chemicals are hard to remove, said Sung Kyun Park, an associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan. After being told about the levels recorded at the state’s monitoring well data, he said the pollution around Lowell is “dangerous.”

At a cellular level, the chemicals can breach the body’s defenses, Park said. Women are particularly vulnerable as the substances can penetrate into ovarian follicles, small sacs filled with fluid that are found inside a woman’s ovaries. They secrete hormones, which influence stages of the menstrual cycle and release eggs for fertilization. A 2020 review paper Park co-authored found that the chemicals “target the ovaries and represent a major risk for women’s health.”

The state should conduct blood tests on Lowell prisoners to check their levels of the chemicals, he said.

Federal environmental regulators are proposing a legally enforceable limit for these chemicals in drinking water. If approved, water containing more than 4 parts per trillion of the chemicals detected in Lowell’s groundwater would be considered unsafe for drinking. That’s about four drops of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Florida’s health standards are more lax. University of Florida researchers helped the state come up with a limit of 70 parts per trillion — or 70 drops of water in those swimming pools — as a safe level in its cleanup of contaminated groundwater.

The results from the monitoring well on the Lowell prison’s property, as detailed in the June letter to the Department of Corrections, showed a contamination level nearly three times what the state considers safe.

Paula Grieve first arrived as a prisoner to Lowell Correctional Institution in July 2021. She was given a life sentence in 1998 for second-degree murder.

When Grieve’s thyroid issues worsened after she arrived, she asked her cousin to investigate the prison’s water quality. That’s when she learned about the fire college and its foam.

“I had been on a mission to learn everything I could,” Grieve told the Times. Soon she was interviewing other women in her prison dorm about their health issues and sharing her concerns.

Her concern about the water led her to write in March to the prison’s assistant warden asking that the prisoners receive bottled water until a clean water supply, or a filtration system, became available.

The request was denied two days later.

In lawmakers’ hands

Since 2021, Republican lawmakers representing the Marion County area have tried — and failed — to install a pipeline that would supply the prisons with clean drinking water, according to a review of appropriation requests.

In October of that year, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, asked the Legislature for $4.7 million for the pipeline’s construction. In his request, Baxley referenced groundwater and soil contamination by chemicals at levels higher than the state’s “provisional cleanup target levels.”

The funding didn’t make it into the budget.

The following year, Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, asked for $6.3 million for the pipeline, but was denied.

This year, Marion County is again seeking dollars for the water line. This third attempt, filed by Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, requests $7 million and cites contaminated soil in the Lowell area.

Unlike the previous bills, it does not mention that the prison would benefit.

“The project has got multiple benefits. It brings clean drinking water to that area,” said Matthew Cretul, the legislative manager for Marion County. “The residents up there — and whoever would be put onto the system — would have that peace of mind of knowing that this water is tested daily, is monitored daily and is something that is controlled.”

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©2024 Tampa Bay Times. Visit at tampabay.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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