Arsenic, other minerals may be back at old Dunbar sludge site

Reporter: Andryanna Sheppard
Published: Updated:

The decades old sludge site on South Street in Fort Myers was supposed to become a park. Now, the neighborhood’s long-awaited promise could be in jeopardy. Even though the sludge is gone, the arsenic and other unhealthy minerals may be back.

The gated lot across the street from Jordon Brown’s home in Dunbar hasn’t changed much in his life. He used to play in it s a kid. But as an adult, he learned his childhood playground was a lime sludge dump site.

“We used to play in the woods but we didn’t know we were playing on toxins,” Brown said. “Now we know.”

While arsenic naturally occurs in the environment, groundwater samples in 2017 showed arsenic levels in excess of residential standards. The City of Fort Myers had the lime sludge cleaned up in 2018 and early 2019. Then, promised the community City View Park in its place along South Street and Henderson Avenue.

City View Park Conceptual Design Presentation

“[If] they got the toxins out of there and they put a park there, yeah, it would make the neighborhood better,” Brown added.

Instead, for nearly five years, the lot has become overgrown. Back in February 2024, the Director of Parks and Rec told WINK News Consumer Reporter Andryanna Sheppard a design firm would present plans, designs and renderings to Fort Myers City Council in April. But now, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection wants to know the lot is safe before the city moves forward.

“Clean all the toxic out,” Brown said. “That’s what I care about.”

Current drone video of former sludge site, CREDIT: WINK News

Groundwater monitoring report results

WINK News obtained multiple emails and documents between the FDEP and the City of Fort Myers. They show the City stopped monitoring and testing the groundwater at the site after the lime sludge was removed. In fact, some of the monitoring wells were destroyed. The FDEP said in emails the City needed to build new wells, continue testing and send them the results. So, the City re-hired the same groundwater monitoring company, GFA International, that it used in the past to get back to testing.

The company later produced a 60-page report detailing all the findings from its sampling and testing back in December 2023. You can read the full report here. Florida Gulf Coast University’s Hydrogeologist Dr. Rachel Rotz went over it with Sheppard. She said the number highlighted in yellow are concerning.

FGCU Hydrogeologist Dr. Rachel Rotz reviews groundwater monitoring report with WINK News Consumer Reporter Andryanna Sheppard, CREDIT: WINK News

“These areas might be concentrations that are either exceeding the primary drinking water standard, the secondary water standard, or the groundwater cleanup target level,” Dr. Rotz explained.

All but one of the eight wells had high concentrations levels of one of more contaminants like arsenic, iron and uranium.

Monitoring Well 10 (MW-10) is technically not on the old sludge site since it’s across the street but the groundwater sampling report found it had high levels of arsenic. Yet, in the report, it doesn’t seem the arsenic came from the sludge site.

“It sort of takes the lime residual off the hook for being the source of the arsenic,” Dr. Rotz added. “But, they are very clearly stating here that there’s still arsenic very close to the site, that there’s still a high level of other contaminants on the site and that the groundwater is still very poor quality or poor quality at the site.”

The GFA report says digging up an removing the lime sludge created a depression. That changed the direction the groundwater flows. GFA speculates it’s bringing in contaminants from other sites in the area, including from a nearby landfill.

“There’s potentially one or more sources of arsenic and other contaminants that are causing the groundwater to be of poor quality in this entire area and this entire neighborhood,” Dr. Rotz pointed out.

And while people in the neighborhood like Jordon Brown aren’t using the shallow groundwater as drinking water, Dr. Rotz believes everyone has the right to know what’s in it, especially if you have a well on your property to water plants and garden.

Groundwater monitoring report, CREDIT: WINK News

“Arsenic can be absorbed into the skin when it’s wet. If you’re eating foods that easily uptake arsenic, you could be eating arsenic and ingesting it into your body,” Dr. Rotz continued. “Our surface waters and our groundwaters are very closely connected and they mix very easily. So if we have contaminated shallow groundwater, there’s a high possibility that the groundwater could flow out into the canals in our neighborhoods, and then ultimately out to the Caloosahatchee River and out to the bay.”

If you are concerned about your well water, Dr. Rotz recommends contacting the University of Florida’s IFAS Lee County Extension to have it tested.

WINK News Consumer Reporter Andryanna Sheppard reached out to Mayor Kevin Anderson and the City Councilman for Dunbar, Johnny Streets. Neither has returned her calls. She also emailed the Parks and Recreation Director who has also not responded.

The City is supposed to send the FDEP more samples May 17, 2024. Council members are expected to talk about the park at the council meeting on Monday, April 15.

Background on sludge site

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