MARCO ISLAND — Environmental concerns on Marco Island that prompted investigations into toxic substances several years ago are getting unearthed again through an activist’s federal lawsuit.
Mario Sanchez, a Miami-Dade College professor who lives on Marco Island, is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alleging that it did not release information about asbestos found in 2005 on city property as required by the Freedom of Information Act.
Marco Public Information Coordinator Lisa Douglass confirmed asbestos fragments existed on a construction staging site, which is now Veterans’ Community Park.
In addition to asbestos fragments, Sanchez alleges that other toxic materials were handled improperly between January 2005 and December 2007. The lawsuit he filed contends that the city pumped untreated hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid and sediment into waterways.
“You can’t find anything to substantiate that because there isn’t anything,” said Douglass, who, before being hired as the city spokeswoman, was the ombudsman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and was addressing Marco residents’ environmental complaints sent to DEP.
Sanchez, who describes himself as an investigative journalist, declined to comment on his lawsuit, but said the media could have “taken on the syndicate” when the “crimes” occurred. He did not specify who the syndicate was, but said information could be found on his online blog.
“The reason for the EPA’s refusal to produce the salient, revealing and indictable aspects of the information the EPA has in its possession is because ... now wait for it … the EPA does not want to embarrass those responsible for the environmental crimes,” Sanchez wrote in a Sept. 18 blog.
Sanchez filed his lawsuit without an attorney on Sept. 18 in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers. In his Freedom of Information Act request, Sanchez sought all EPA documents involving Marco Island between January 2005 and July 31, 2008.
Sanchez’s lawsuit says the EPA informed him that his public information request was denied because people investigated by the EPA “may be embarrassed” by the release of such information.
When contacted, EPA officials did not specify what information was not provided or why it wasn’t provided.
“We take FOIA responsibilities very seriously,” said EPA Spokeswoman Deb Berlin. “Once the complaint is received, we will look into the allegations and respond as is consistent with the law.”
Although it’s the EPA’s policy not to comment on pending litigation, Berlin said EPA officials and attorneys are putting a lot of energy into investigating Sanchez’s allegations of FOIA violations.
The issue began in October 2005, when crushed asbestos pipe was discovered on the park property, prompting allegations against the city and Quality Enterprises, a contractor the city hired to complete the Collier Boulevard Reconstruction Project. City officials disputed the contentions, accusing residents of planting the asbestos to derail the ongoing construction on Marco.
“There certainly was enough mystery and misinformation surrounding the issue to make one suspicious,” said former Marco resident Ed Foster, who championed a lawsuit in 2006 against the City of Marco Island, then-City Manager Bill Moss, Public Works Director Rony Joel and Quality Enterprises.
Police Chief Thom Carr said detectives closed their investigation into the planted asbestos theory after determining the allegations were unfounded.
In March 2006, Citizens Advocating Responsible Environmental Solutions (CARES), a former political action committee, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court over the asbestos allegations. That lawsuit, which accused the city of violating the federal Clean Air Act, ended in a settlement agreement in October 2006 that required Quality Enterprises to pay for the proper removal and disposal of the asbestos.
Foster was the CARES chairman. Although it was settled, CARES filed motions to enforce the settlement and the lawsuit was disposed of two months later.
“The issue is over,” said Douglass.
When the allegations surfaced, Foster, Godfrey Davies, Sanchez and other residents collected and reported evidence to support their contentions that Marco’s underground water, which contains hydrogen sulfide, was pumped into canals to make way for the construction of the island’s Septic Tank Replacement Program. At the time, many residents reported allergic reactions to a rotten egg smell that is associated with hydrogen sulfide.
The Collier County Department of Health investigated the health concerns residents raised in relation to the construction on Collier Boulevard as well as the Septic Tank Replacement Program, which began in 2005.
The city had “all the appropriate health and safety measures in place,” said Collier County Health Department Spokeswoman Deb Millsap. “That doesn’t mean it’s not a smelly process.”
The process has since changed, according to Douglass, who said underground water related to the ongoing sewer project is now sent to the treatment plant. Residents’ complaints are now infrequent.
In 2007, DEP and the South Florida Water Management District ordered Marco Island to stop discharging waste into state waters. However, the order did not result in fines.
Foster, who now lives in North Carolina, said he agrees with Sanchez’s continued desire to collect and share all information that could potentially affect the environment and residents’ health.
Sanchez contends that waiting for the information is like waiting for those who perpetrated the environmental crimes to serve prison time.
In an Oct. 2 blog, he wrote, “The few conscientious citizens on Marco Island have turned over everything we have: pictures, videos, first-hand accounts, city documents, etc. But what we don’t know is what has been provided to the EPA by the perpetrators, accomplices and co-conspirators in these environmental crimes.”
“You would think that the public’s right to know how their health and that of their environment has been affected by the well-documented exposure to several highly toxic contaminants would easily trump whatever pretext the EPA can come up with for refusing to release anything – especially since the criminal case is ‘closed,’” Sanchez’s blog reads.
City officials said they don’t understand what Sanchez wants at this point.
Staff writer Aisling Swift contributed to this report.