NORTH KEY LARGO -- An environmental watchdog group is accusing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection of not properly cleaning out higher-than-normal arsenic levels in Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park.
Citing a 2006 DEP study by research firm Metcalf and Eddy, Jerry Phillips, director of Florida's Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says the state is trying to cover up an arsenic problem rather than clean it up properly.
Prior to becoming a state park, part of the land was used as a Nike missile launch site which included a skeet shooting range. PEER alleges that the prior uses, particularly the range, left a toxic legacy. Site maps show the former skeet range to be in the vicinity of The Hammock golf course at the Ocean Reef Club.
"Who knows how long it's been there," Phillips said.
Phillips said a Florida Keys whistleblower recently tipped his group off to the arsenic and other contaminants which prompted their public records investigation.
Phillips has sent a letter to the state Inspector General's office asking for an investigation into the DEP's handling of the situation.
PEER wants the DEP to hold itself accountable as it would any private entity. This means, he says, it needs to publicly announce the arsenic findings and post warning signs, fully investigate the arsenic and execute a plan to clean the area.
Phillips believes the levels could be dangerous to native wildlife including the Key Largo woodrat.
"I'm not trying to scare people," he said, adding that more research should be done to assess whether the arsenic has affected surface or ground water.
DEP spokeswoman Reena Bhardwaj, who said the state has been monitoring the site since the 2006 study, indicated that a clean up of the area is unlikely.
"The department's scientists confirm that excavation of this sensitive area would negatively impact about 60,000 square feet of coastal mangrove forest that is protected in Florida," she wrote in an email. "Also, due to the site's extreme remoteness and lack of human access, there is no risk to human exposure."
Michael Chenoweth, an attorney and environmental advocate who helped establish the park, says PEER's concerns about arsenic levels are being overblown.
Chenoweth said the area in question is not close to residential or commercial areas and the possibility of human exposure is virtually zero. He said he expects the state to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively than trying to investigate this arsenic.
"The reality is very different from the PEER assertion," Chenoweth said. "There is very little reason to clean up a relatively tiny area that almost no one visits, and where the contamination is bound up in the soil."
Chenoweth said when the property was acquired in the 1980s, it was widely known that the land included the former skeet range that was likely to have some contamination.
"This is not news and is not a danger to anyone," he said.
Chenoweth said he is disappointed by the environmental group's actions.
"The unwarranted 'sky-is-falling' character of the PEER press release could potentially deter Floridians and visitors to our state from visiting this very interesting and important park," he said. "That would be a tragedy."