No one expects board members to be experts in chemistry, but we do expect them to have sound moral principles and to exercise good judgement. We do expect our elected officials to protect the public interest and the common good, not their own bureaucracy or corporate polluters. When adults and children are being poisoned by radionuclides, we expect our local ECUA to warn us and limit the harm done. And, in the case of Pensacola’s radium poisoning, Elvin McCorvey, currently running for his sixth term on the ECUA Board, sided with the ECUA administration and failed to tell the truth to Pensacola’s and Gulf Breeze’s ratepayers, even though he and the ECUA Board had been told directly that ECUA’s wells had been contaminated by the toxic plume emanating from the Agrico Chemical Superfund site. Larry Walker on the ECUA Board at the time is now running for re-election as well.
Even today, decades after the fact, McCorvey cannot tell the public the whole truth. He cannot tell Escambia County residents that when he was faced with a moral issue of deciding whether he would protect young children and adults from radionuclides in their water, he decided not tell them of the harm; he chose to give them a false sense of security; he chose not to protect them; he chose not to give them an alternative source of water. He decided to treat ECUA ratepayers--and vulnerable children--like they did not matter. Elvin McCorvey and Larry Walker do not deserve your vote.
The story is rather complicated and involved. Here, we shall emphasize what the ECUA Board knew and what the Board, including McCorvey, did and did not do.
A TALE OF DECEIT AND COVERUP
The Pensacola News Journal published three front-page stories on September 7, 8, and 9, 2003 (behind paywall). The three articles, based upon a review of 50,000 pages of public documents, established that “for at least 54 months, between February 1996 and September 2000, more than 10,000 residents in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze were drinking water polluted with radium 226/228 at levels considered unsafe by the federal government.”
The EPA’s standard for radionuclides in drinking water is 5 picocuries per liter. That standard has not changed since 1977, though in 1991 the EPA announced that it was starting the process to review this standard—though it remained legally in effect. The Pensacola News Journal wrote that in 1996 the EPA decided not to revise the level of radionuclides upwards and had told public water companies that the radionuclide level would not change. In 2000, the radionuclides rule was finalized without having changed the permissible Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL). Thus, at no time did the radionuclide standard change and no deviation from the standard was permitted.
The radium 226/228 was discovered in ECUA wells in February 1996, one year before McCorvey was coming on to the board in January 1997.
In the September 7th, 2003, article, the PNJ reported: “In August 1997, the Northwest Florida Water Management District, a state agency, told the ECUA board that the Agrico plume had contaminated two of its wells, which provided water to thousands of residents in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze, and appeared to have polluted a third” [emphasis added]. In fact, the City of Pensacola knew in 1958 that one its wells had been contaminated by toxic waste from Agrico Chemical. In 1972, the U.S. Geological Survey informed the City of Pensacola that Agrico Chemical “could be contaminating as many as ten public wells.”
According to the September 7th, 2003, article: “In the last five years alone, ECUA has closed two wells—No. 9 and East—because of radium pollution, and the No. 8 well, in part, because of radium. All these wells are near Agrico and in the path of the known plume.”
In June 1998, the ECUA published a notice in the News Journal that barely informed the public of what was wrong. Instead, the ECUA notice stated that radium was a “‘naturally occurring radioactive metal’” and a “‘health concern at certain levels of exposure.’” The notice also stated that “‘although the ECUA well identified in the above [No. 9] notice is technically out of compliance ... there should be little reason for concern.’”
In November 1998, the ECUA began testing its wells for radium 226/228. At no time did the ECUA inform the public of the results of the radionuclide testing.
The radionuclide levels were shocking. The water going to Gulf Breeze was 129 times higher than the federal level 5 picocuries per liter. A second sample registered at 99 times the federal level. Samples taken from tap water revealed radionuclides 2 times the federal level, according to the Pensacola News Journal. The victims of radionuclide poisoning included:
- very young children at “Cordova Park Elementary School; travelers passing through the Pensacola Regional Airport; visitors to the Welcome Center at the foot of the Pensacola Bay Bridge; employees at the offices of the Santa Rosa Island Authority at Pensacola Beach;” and, 10,613 ratepayers in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze drinking poisoned water from their household taps.
In December 1998, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) drafted a consent order that would have required the ECUA to begin a study within 90 days to determine ways to fix the high level of radionuclides and to provide ratepayers an alternative source of water.
Apparently as late as October 1999, the ECUA was still measuring high levels of radionuclides in the drinking water. Ordered by the FL DEP to inform its customers of the dangers, the ECUA refused, according to the News Journal’s September 8th article.
The ECUA resisted and refused to provide an alternative source of water for over 10,000 people being poisoned by ECUA. The Florida Department of Health backed up the ECUA and eventually the FL DEP caved in August 1999 on providing alternative water. The final consent order, issued in February 2000, had no mandatory timeline to fix the high levels of radionuclides.
In February 2000, the then executive director of the ECUA wrote a letter to the ECUA Board bragging that they were required to do nothing and an unlimited time to do it. The News Journal quoted from the letter: “‘The requirement to provide an alternate source of water, which was in the original language, has been removed,’ he wrote. ‘Most importantly, this consent order does not require ECUA to commit to any corrective action at this time.’”
Later in February 2000, the ECUA sent a “Update on Radionculides” letter to 10,613 ratepayers that essentially lied to them, telling them that the EPA was considering raising the radionuclide level. Even if true, the 1977 radionuclide was still legally in force.
In April 2000, according to the Pensacola News Journal article, the “EPA formally announced what it had been telling public utilities and state regulators since 1996—the existing radium standard would remain unchanged. What’s more, ‘new data and models suggest that radionuclides are much riskier than thought,’ according to the EPA notice. The new goal: a maximum contaminant level goal of zero for all radionuclides in drinking water. The message was clear: No level of radium in drinking water was considered acceptable by EPA.”
In July 2001, the ECUA mailed the following information to its ratepayers, according to the News Journal: “‘Although radium levels in two wells exceed’ the federal standard, ‘both the toxicologists with the Florida Department of Health and our consulting scientists agree that there is no significant increase in short-term or lifetime risk to public health associated with the use and consumption of ECUA water.’”
The News Journal quoted three outside different experts with no apparent financial links to local industry who essentially stated that the ECUA and its Board were misleading its customers, trying to give them a false sense of security, and hiding their near criminal actions.
A toxicologist from Western Michigan University called the ECUA statement “‘baloney.’” A nuclear physicist and radium expert from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine stated the ECUA statement was “‘a complete misstatement.’” An epidemiologist from the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health stated, “‘To me, that kind of public response is a red flag…. That’s the response of people who want to convince the public, ‘We know everything,’ which we don’t, and that you as a resident are irresponsible to be concerned about your water.’”
On September 30, 2003, 21 days after the News Journal finished publishing its three-part series on the Agrico Chemical Superfund site and radionuclide levels in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze drinking water, at least 50 residents of Pensacola, backed by some City Council members met with ECUA board member McCorvey and head of the Escambia County Health Department John Lanza at the Macedonia Baptist Church.
McCorvey was quoted by the News Journal telling the residents, “‘There has not been any evidence to show that the Agrico (Chemical Co.) plume has contaminated the aquifer.’”
That statement is simply not true and is contradicted by water experts who told the ECUA that it had been contaminated by the toxic plume from Agico Chemical.
As noted above, the City of Pensacola had been told in 1958 that Agrico Chemical had forced the closure of the 12th Street well and in 1972 the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) had told the City that at least ten wells were threatened by Agrico Chemical and those wells needed to be monitored. In fact, the USGS had reported that contamination levels, including of fluoride, were higher in 1972 than they were in 1958. The News Journal reported in its September 7th article that “There’s no evidence in the public record that this [monitoring] was ever done.”
And, McCorvey’s statement is directly contradicted by an August 1997 statement—eight months after McCorvey joined the ECUA Board—delivered directly to the Board by the NW FL Water Management District that “the Agrico plume had contaminated two of its wells, which provided water to thousands of residents in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze, and appeared to have polluted a third,” according to the first of the three-part News Journal articles. And, the ECUA was aware as early as November 1998 when it began joint testing with the Escambia County Health Department that it was delivering drinking water to Gulf Breeze and Pensacola that was contaminated with radionuclides far above the EPA’s maximum level.
The three Pensacola News Journal articles, based upon reviewing 50,000 pages of public documents, spurred the creation of a Special Grand Jury in November 2003 to investigate the ECUA administrators and board members. The Special Grand Jury was also investigating Conoco and Agrico Chemical, the last two companies responsible for the Superfund site. Assistant state attorney Russ Edgar advised the Special Grand Jury.
When the Special Grand Jury’s report was released to the public, the News Journal’s headline for the May 5, 2004, story was: “Grand jury blasts agencies over tainted water supply.” The News Journal characterized the report as “blistering” and stated that the ECUA is “by far is the agency hardest hit in the grand jury report.” The Special Grand Jury blamed the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and singled out the top two ECUA administrators for not informing the ECUA Board.
But, of the ECUA Board, the Special Grand Jury observed, “We find ECUA’s former Executive Director and former Science, Technical and Regulatory Administrator made policy decisions on health and safety issues without oversight from a majority of the members of the ECUA Board. A majority of the ECUA Board’s members subsequently tacitly approved these decisions, relinquishing their responsibilities to their customers and the public” (page 3 pdf).
The News Journal wrote that “Edgar confirmed the report is referring to Larry Walker, Bobby Tronu and Elvin McCorvey as the members who relinquished their responsibilities to the public. Walker and Tronu no longer are on the board; McCorvey has been a member since 1996.” Actually, Larry Walker returned to the ECUA Board and is running for re-election.
McCorvey told the News Journal, “‘It speaks directly to my actions because I supported recommendations that came to the board based on information we had,’ he [McCorvey] said. ‘And based on the information we had, our decisions were good decisions…’” Walker flat-out stated that the ECUA administrators and staff never withheld information from the ECUA Board and that “‘there were no big hidden secrets at ECUA.’”
The bottom line is that there is documentary evidence that the ECUA Board was informed of the radionuclide problems and explicitly or tacitly supported ECUA’s administrators who failed to inform the public of the scope and seriousness of the very high levels of radionuclides in the drinking water, especially drinking water provided to very young children at Cordova Park Elementary School; fought the Florida DEP to inform the public; fought the Florida DEP into not providing an alternative water source; and, then deliberately misinformed the public after the News Journal articles appeared.
McCorvey ran unopposed in 2004 and has never been held publicly accountable for his shameful and borderline illegal actions.
Moreover, Elvin McCorvey is still misleading the public about radionuclides in the ECUA water.
In late May 2016, McCorvey conducted a very friendly interview with the Pensacola Voice. In response to a question about "chemicals in their water," McCorvey responded with a half-truth: "'Some of things are naturally occurred. Rocks give off radium and that’s natural. It does not come from man (contamination) It’s natural.'"
Yes, radium in rocks is natural. But, how the radium in the rocks got into ECUA's wells was not natural. And the level of radium in the water was not only natural, it was downright dangerous to the growing bones of young children.
The September 7, 2003, Pensacola News Journal, explained that the ECUA staff knew this was not natural. Bernie Dahl at the time was the ECUA's administrator for scientific, technical, and regulatory matters. The newspaper reported that "handwritten, undated notes by Dahl, written sometime after April 2000, show he knew fluoride measured in ECUA wells was 'from Agrico,' and that high levels of aluminum and manganese were 'most likely from Agrico.' He also wrote that 'extreme acid from Agrico' could have dislodged the naturally occurring radium 226/228 in underground rocks and released it into the aquifer that supplies Escambia and Santa Rosa counties with their drinking water."
McCorvey, apparently, cannot face the reality that he chose to do something monstrous--to not tell parents that their young children were being poisoned by radium in their school's drinking water, as well as more than 10,000 other ratepayers in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.