For years, the Vorpes of Jacksonville, Fla., lived in a toxic twilight zone. Their drinking water and land poisoned by hazardous chemicals buried beneath the house, their health failing, they were desperate to move. But the family could not afford it.
Last month, their dilemma ended. Owners of the company that dumped the chemicals nearly 20 years ago agreed to buy out and relocate the Vorpes and five of their neighbors.
The $530,000 agreement by Waste Management Inc. was the latest in a series of subsidized relocations of polluted communities. Instead of the costly, tortuous and generally ineffective public works projects intended to remove the source of pollution, the government and polluters are increasingly removing the victims from the pollutants.
"The longer you stay there, the longer you're subjected to the danger," said Henry Vorpe, who has lived with his wife and daughter in a house for four years after it was discovered to have been built on a dump site for hazardous substances.
"We were caught in a severe bind," said Vorpe, 34. "We knew we had to move, but I couldn't sell this place and very few people can afford two mortgages. It's a helpless feeling."
Under the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program, the government is supposed to identify contaminated communities and arrange for their cleanup at the polluter's expense. But the process usually mires in bureaucratic red tape and technological lapses, exhausting years without remedy. Meanwhile, the residents remain exposed.
Superfund's managers in the Environmental Protection Agency have authority to evacuate communities facing serious health threats. But they have rarely invoked it.
More than 800 residents of Love Canal, the Niagara Falls, N.Y., community steeped in dangerous chemicals, were evacuated in the late 1970s -- the first toxic dislocation. Residents of Times Beach, Mo., Globe, Ariz., and Centralia, Pa., were the only other evacuees over the next five years. A combination of federal and state funds paid for the buyouts and relocations from those four areas.
Since 1985, the number of relocations has more than doubled as the EPA and state governments adopt quicker, less expensive ways of guarding populations from toxic dangers.
Eleven families were evacuated in late 1985 and early 1986 from a community in Kent, Wash., that was exposed to dangerously high levels of methane gas from a 60-acre landfill operated by Seattle in the center of the residential area. The city has bought out 114 families since last November. Hundreds more want to leave.
More than 1,000 residents of a religious community in Humacao, Puerto Rico, were evacuated by the commonwealth government after mercury from a polluted stream was found in the soil and blood of homeowners.
Fifty families were evacuated from an Augusta, Ga., subdivision in February 1986 because of the threat of explosion from methane gas. The community had been built on top of a landfill, and underground gas was escaping. Georgia paid for the property and relocation.
"The costs and complexity of detoxifying the sites are so big that evacuation starts to look better and better," said Hugh Kaufman, assistant to the EPA's director of the Hazardous Site Control Division.
Last spring, Anaconda Minerals Co. became the first alleged polluter to pay for an evacuation, buying out the homes of and relocating 30 families in Mill Creek, Mont. The community's soil was contaminated by arsenic, cadmium and lead believed to have been released by an Anaconda smelter that operated there from the 1880s through 1981.
The Jacksonville, Fla., relocation was the first paid for by a hauler of toxic debris. Waste Management, the nation's largest trash collector, is said to share responsibility for the pollution of numerous Superfund sites nationwide.
According to the EPA, Waste Control of Florida Inc., now owned by Waste Management, was hired in 1968 by a Jacksonville property owner to fill in a seven-acre cypress swamp. The land was subsequently subdivided and developed for housing by the Vorpes and three other families. A semirural, working-class community of about 100 homes skirts the landfill. Many of the residents are veterans of the Jacksonville and Cecil Field Naval Air Stations two miles away.
By 1983, residents began complaining of a foul odor and acrid taste in their drinking water drawn from private wells. Tests turned up numerous toxic chemicals, including such known or probable carcinogens as benzene, methylene chloride, vinyl chloride, chloroform and tetrachloroethylene.
When the residents went digging in the one-time landfill, they found cans of solvents, paint and chemicals bearing Navy serial numbers, said Ron Simon, a Washington lawyer who represents Jacksonville homeowners in the case. According to the EPA, Waste Control hauled the hazardous trash there from the two air bases nearby.
Waste Management contends that the Navy had contracted for disposal of household wastes, not toxic chemicals, and the Navy should bear responsibility for any damages.
The Navy declines to discuss terms of the contract with Waste Control. Elsie Munsell, senior trial attorney for the Navy's office of the general counsel, said that while some of the toxic debris used to fill in the swamp is of the kind generated in the 1960s by one of the bases, the Navy "at this time" denies any responsibility for damaging health or property near the landfill.
In 1984, the site qualified for Superfund cleanup. Two years later, the EPA decided that families living on or near the landfill should be moved so the polluted area could be covered. The Navy and Waste Management were given the option of negotiating with the residents or reimbursing the EPA for settlements that it reached with them.
Waste Management decided to deal directly with the families to speed up the process, said James Hynes, the company's deputy general counsel. He insisted, however, that the Aug. 14 agreement to buy out and move the residents was not an acknowledgment of wrongdoing or liability. Nor is it part of a larger plan to compensate the dozens of other households that blame Waste Management and the Navy for health and property damage, said Hynes. The six families with whom the company has reached agreement lived on the landfill or immediately next to it.
Hynes said, moreover, that Waste Management hopes to be reimbursed by the Navy.
"We're in an industry where you're supposed to act responsibly," said Hynes. "If you wait for the government to act, it could've taken another year. We wanted to get this site resolved as soon as possible."
It was not soon enough for the Vorpes and other families who have been negotiating with Waste Management for months.
Henry Vorpe, a civil engineer, built a three-bedroom home on a 2 1/2-acre lot in 1974. He said he had never been informed that he was buying part of a landfill. By the late 1970's, he received the first sign of trouble. While planting fruit trees in his yard, Vorpe said, he unearthed syringes, hypodermic needles and empty cans of paint thinner, hydraulic fluid and paint marked with Navy serial numbers.
Meanwhile, his wife developed stomach disorders, headaches and benign breast tumors, he said, and his young daughter had kidney, bladder and stomach problems.
When the city and state found hazardous chemicals in the drinking water in 1983, recalled Vorpe in an interview, "I was ready to move, right then and there. The mental thing starts building on you. You lay there at night and worry that the problems with my wife and daughter resulted from the landfill. People at work say your property isn't worth anything. It's like a big, bad dream."
Frustrated by the EPA's slow cleanup schedule and unable to sell his house, Vorpe considered foreclosure. But he feared for his credit rating and stayed, he said, becoming "so tense, I just wanted to choke somebody."
Waste Management finally agreed to pay $97,000 for his property and relocation, and he is in the process of buying a new home. Still, Vorpe said, he is embittered to have been trapped for four years in a potentially dangerous environment.
"You have absolutely no control over your destiny," he said. "It's just terrifying."