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The toxic town that Florida forgot

One afternoon in September 2003, Laura Ward peered out her window and witnessed a giant rig drilling on her land, the largest residence in town. ``You don't know, but the water is contaminated here,'' a worker whispered to her. ``We're putting in monitoring wells in your community because the water is contaminated.''

Forty-four months after discovery that the shuttered American Beryllium Company plant had leaked pollutants into Tallevast, the community was just now getting word.

Two weeks later, Ward and neighbor Wanda Washington bumped into representatives from Lockheed Martin, the Fortune 500 company that owned the plant. `` `Is there some place we can go talk?' '' the executive asked, Ward recalled.

Huddled at the Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church on the town's main road, the Lockheed executive told them: ``There's some TCE in the water. We don't think it's very far off site.''

That assurance proved false. Once discovered, the documented size of the plume kept expanding, becoming larger and more toxic than the company's consultants disclosed, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection said in a 2004 order requiring Lockheed Martin to clean up the mess. In one spot, the concentration of cancer-causing TCE was 10,000 times above state standards. Five of seven irrigation wells had levels exceeding state benchmarks. In some spots, the state found TCE where the company had not.

The mix of TCE and other solvents, the DEP concluded, invaded both the surface and underlying aquifers in Tallevast and spread like a finger north, northeast, east and southeast into the hamlet.

A decade after the leak's discovery, a definitive health study has yet to be completed in the small town between Sarasota and Bradenton. Read story by Herald's Ronnie Greene here.