Tiny toxic Florida town takes on a corporate Goliath

TALLEVAST, Fla. -- The main drag in this tiny blue collar hamlet is nearly hidden west of U.S. 301, a world away from the bustle of nearby Carrabba's, The Fresh Market and Starbucks. Tallevast Road lacks sidewalks, so if you're walking through town, tread gingerly to avoid the work trucks rumbling through. A long-closed plant anchors one end of town, hovering like the ghost of dead industry.

Yet Tallevast retains a small town richness, where news spreads word of mouth, neighbors are often kin, and many, though not all, of the 80 homes maintain the well-kept look of the working class.

Environmental contamination threatens to destroy this historic black town and its heritage. In one of the nation's most emotional environmental divides, the residents find themselves pitted against giant defense contractor Lockheed Martin, Manatee County, and the state of Florida.

The divide takes root at the former American Beryllium Company plant, anchoring five acres at 1600 Tallevast Road across from a community church. Opened in 1961 and shuttered in 1996, the plant manufactured machine parts for nuclear weapons using beryllium-containing metals. Workers inhaled hazardous dust and handled a toxic degreaser that cleaned machine parts.


In January 2000, as it prepared to sell the plant it had recently purchased, Lockheed Martin discovered a leak of solvents used in those degreasers. The leaching, state officials say, could have begun 38 years earlier and, stunningly, gone undetected until then. The company told the state and county, and industry and government began excising tainted soil and following the trail of contamination.

They discovered an underground plume seeping 200 acres in a town of 1.5 square miles, where a number of residents still drank and showered from well water. The main hazard in that toxic cesspool was TCE, a cancer-causing chemical used in the degreaser that, five years earlier, had drawn attention in the book A Civil Action over contamination in a small Massachusetts town.

The people of Tallevast, told nothing, discovered the news by chance more than three years later, in September 2003.

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