PENSACOLA, Florida—As the sun set over Pensacola Bay, Dixie Wilkinson sat in a lawn chair on her back porch, overlooking her carefully tended yard that slopes toward the water. She gazed at the sinewy oak tree in the middle of the freshly cut grass, the same tree she had played under as a child.
The silence of the dusk surrounding her was broken only by a distant train whistle and the fluttering of wind chimes hanging from her carport.
Wilkinson thought about the land that she and generations of her family were raised on. “I would not want to live anywhere else. I’ve gone to different places all over. But this is my, you know, this is the place I love,” she said with a soft southern drawl, gesturing towards her yard.
Yet the soil and the groundwater in her neighborhood have been poisoned over the years, and she believes the contaminants have sickened her and her neighbors.
Wilkinson, 66, lives less than 100 yards from the old American Creosote Works, one of the country’s worst hazardous waste sites. It was so laced with carcinogenic dioxins from treating railroad ties and telephone poles with creosote that the Environmental Protection Agency put it on a new list of the worst so-called Superfund sites in 1983.
It’s been on the list ever since, only now there is no funding in the federal budget to finish the cleanup.
The 18-acre site, three blocks north of Pensacola Bay, is one of just five Superfund sites nationwide that the EPA considers an uncontrolled threat to human health and at risk of climate change-related events like flooding and hurricanes, according to an Inside Climate News analysis of EPA data.
As recently as last September—days before Hurricane Sally dumped 30 inches of rain on Pensacola in four hours and left an oil slick-like sheen on the streets of Wilkinson’s Sanders Beach neighborhood—the EPA found dioxin levels in the soil of nearby homes that were well above Florida’s safety standard for the toxin: one sample came back 35 times higher.
Earlier in the year, the EPA found naphthalene, a possible human carcinogen that has been linked with neurological and liver disease, in one groundwater sample at more than 785 times the level of Florida’s groundwater cleanup standard.
In his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, President Biden has proposed reimposing a tax on potential corporate polluters to help pay for Superfund cleanups. While the tax, which Congress let expire in 1995, faces an uncertain future, an international coalition of environmentalists and lawyers has begun a global campaign to make this type of systemic, long-lasting environmental devastation an international crime called “ecocide” before the International Criminal Court.
The campaign’s future is also uncertain—and even if ecocide were to become an international crime five or six years from now, it would have no bearing on sites like the American Creosote Works. The United States is not a member of the court and, at times, has been critical of the institution.
But those behind the campaign and many U.S. environmentalists say the ecocide framework remains highly relevant for assessing America’s Superfund sites and other examples of widespread environmental damage in moral terms. The nation’s existing laws and courts have failed to protect the environment and safeguard public health, and environmental damage in one country can lead to climate change felt worldwide.
“Superfund sites in America are living examples of the worst instances of ecocide within our borders and are almost exclusively located in or next to communities of color,” said Scott W. Badenoch Jr., an American environmental lawyer who favors the criminalization of ecocide.
For decades, Wilkinson, a retired police administrator, had fought to get the American Creosote site cleaned up. But time and inaction weathered her resolve, leading her to believe that she was unlikely to see things change during her lifetime.
Then, in December 2016, she met her new next-door neighbor, a 30-year-old bartender and nutritionist named Kelly Hagen.
Shortly after Hagen and her partner moved into their new, pale gray, three-bedroom home, they discovered a rotting odor coming from underneath the house. Hagen pulled on a white protective suit and, without flinching, disappeared into the crawl space.
Wilkinson watched from behind the chest-high, brown picket fence dividing the two properties, as Hagen emerged with a decaying possum in hand. “I think I’m going to like her,” Wilkinson said to her husband.
At the time, Hagen didn’t even know what a Superfund site was. But soon, the fight was on.
The Wood Preservation Industry: A Legacy of Toxic Pollution
Along with coal and iron, wood was an important natural resource for fueling the fire of the American Industrial Revolution. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, timber, much of which flowed through the Port of Pensacola, was used to build homes, bridges, ships and railroads.
By 1909, the nation was cutting forests down three times faster than they could grow, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
The country’s voracious appetite for wood sparked an odd alliance between conservationists, concerned with environmental protection, and industrialists, worried that lumber scarcity would drive up prices. The coalition began championing the use of chemicals, like the coal-distillate creosote, to preserve timber products. The technology works by pressure-treating wood to kill insects and prevent natural decay, extending the average life of timber from seven to 40 years.
But in attempting to solve one environmental problem, humans created another.
Public documents and court records dating back to the early 1900s show that the wood-preservation industry—including American Creosote Works—fought off workers’ claims that creosote exposure made them sick and caused skin burns and irritation.
Today, the EPA recognizes creosote as a probable human carcinogen that contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, such as naphthalene.
The American Creosote Works plant in Pensacola operated from 1902 to 1981. Workers there treated timber with the tar-like creosote for use in telephone poles, railroad ties and bridge beams and left the wood outside to drip-dry. In 1950, the company started also using pentachlorophenol, or PCP, a dioxin-containing chemical used to preserve wood.
Dioxins are a variety of persistent organic pollutants that have long been considered some of the most toxic chemicals in the world. They can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system and can interfere with hormones, according to the EPA. Dioxins were also byproducts found in Agent Orange, the herbicide and defoliant sprayed over dense jungles during the Vietnam War.
Waste from American Creosote Works was routinely dumped into evaporation ponds and unlined pits. Contaminants seeped into the earth and flowed into nearby Pensacola Bay and Bayou Chico.
Growing up next door in Sanders Beach in the 1960s, Wilkinson regularly scrubbed her creosote-drenched cats and dogs in a steel galvanized tub on her parents’ back porch. “It was gooey, oily and smelly,” she said. “And it was not easy to get off … you never got rid of the smell.”
Back then, Sanders Beach was primarily a working-class neighborhood with many residents working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Wilkinson’s father had three. “I don’t know if we made it to middle-class, but we were better off than some down here,” she said, referring in part to workers at American Creosote.
Victor Alexander, a pastor and Air Force veteran, grew up next door to Sanders Beach in a predominantly-Black area called The Tanyard Community from 1963 to 1974. Alexander, 66, said part of survival for his community meant growing their own food. “You always had a garden,” he remembered. “Collard greens, turnip greens, you know, mustard greens, black-eyed peas, peas or string beans.”
Shavings from discarded pieces of pine from American Creosote, treated with that dark, sticky, foul-smelling substance, helped those gardens to flourish when mixed with topsoil. Alexander’s father, along with other men from The Tanyard, collected the wood—gloves were unaffordable—and piled it into cars. Those pine shavings were also used to make footpaths in the neighborhood’s numerous gardens, Alexander said, and just about everyone walked through them barefoot.
It would be years until Tanyard residents fully realized what dangers they were bringing back home. “We operated out of ignorance because knowledge was withheld from us,” he said. “Looking back, a lot of playmates, colleagues that grew up in the area have passed on. Unfortunately, a majority have passed on by some form of cancer.”
Alexander, the oldest of seven children, came down with prostate cancer at 44, and two of his sisters have had breast cancer. He acknowledges that there were many contaminants back then—like the waste treatment facility dubbed “Ol’ Stinky” just a few blocks away—and that it’s difficult to draw a straight line from any illness back to American Creosote Works. But still, he wonders.
“It did affect us,” Alexander said. “Not just affect us, it infected us. But compensation was never something that was received, especially in that community.”
After more than 75 years of unchecked pollution, Florida began monitoring the American Creosote Works site, bringing its first enforcement action against the company in 1981.
A year later, American Creosote Works filed for bankruptcy, according to EPA records. Around the same time, other wood treatment plants across the country took the same tack, effectively evading liability for cleanup costs, which can be upwards of $50 million per site.
The industry’s legacy of toxic creosote and dioxin pollution affects mostly poor communities, and has been largely overlooked as one of the country’s biggest historical industrial polluters. Today, the use of creosote and other wood-treatment chemicals is allowable, though regulated. And the EPA is in the process of performing a 15-year review of creosote and other heavy-duty wood preservatives to determine whether the chemicals can “carry out their intended function without creating unreasonable risks to human health and the environment.”
The Creosote Council, a pro-industry group that promotes the use of creosote as environmentally friendly, declined to comment.
The Superfund Program Is Born
Two years before American Creosote Works went bankrupt, Congress in 1980 passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). The law gave the EPA, then just 10 years old, the authority and funds to identify and regulate the nation’s toxic waste sites that posed a threat to human health.
Originally funded in large part by a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries, lawmakers intended the measure to hold polluting companies responsible for cleaning up their own messes. If the companies couldn’t afford to pay for it or no responsible party could be found, the program charged the EPA for the cleanup, using money from the Superfund Trust.
In 1983, the American Creosote Works became one of the first sites placed by the EPA on the National Priorities List, a grouping of some of the most toxic places in America. It’s been there ever since, despite about $30 million in remedial cleanup work done already. The EPA estimates there have been about 90 former wood treatment sites on the National Priorities List.
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While a 1985 study from the EPA linked exposure to dioxins with liver and neurological damage, such as impairment to sensory functions, the first health assessment at American Creosote, carried out in 1986 by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, incorrectly determined there to be no threat.
Early one summer morning two years later, Wilkinson, then a young mother, and her brother took his 28-foot sailboat out into Pensacola Bay. Not long after they set sail, Wilkinson collapsed onto the deck of the boat in a wave of pain and was rushed to the hospital.
She had ignored the aching in her left side for months, but she couldn’t ignore this. Doctors discovered a tumor on her pancreas, the source of the pain, and separately diagnosed colon cancer. The event shifted something for Wilkinson, a healthy 34-year-old with no family history of cancer. In the years to come, she suffered from a series of grapefruit-sized tumors in her abdomen.
After the diagnoses, she began to see the past in a new light, questioning why multiple neighbors had gotten sick with cancer and multiple sclerosis at young ages, some of them teenagers.
“I can’t prove any of that had anything to do with growing up here, but it is odd,” she said.
No longer walking barefoot in the grass, digging into the ground to garden or letting her son play in the yard, Wilkinson’s relationship with the place she loved began to change.
The Third Largest Environmental Evacuation in U.S. History
Although workers first found a creosote-like substance in groundwater in 1980, the area wasn’t deemed a public health hazard until 1992 in an assessment by the Florida Department of Health.
By then, 3.5 miles north of American Creosote, residents in mostly Black neighborhoods were complaining about a similar plant nearby, Escambia Wood Treating Company. It, too, went bankrupt and became a notorious Superfund site, known locally as “Mt. Dioxin.” It, too, sat for decades on the National Priorities List despite local officials touting big plans for repurposing the land after its cleanup. The site even received one of Florida’s first-ever Brownfield grants, the federal program that aims to clean up and then repurpose old industrial properties.
Wilma Subra, a chemist and environmental scientist who consulted on behalf of the residents, said that anyone who came in contact with dioxin-contaminated soil would potentially risk bioaccumulation—the absorption of a chemical into an organism faster than it can be expelled. According to the World Health Organization, dioxins remain in the human body for seven to 11 years.
Contaminated groundwater, on the other hand, “can take decades to a century or more to clean up,” Subra said.
Given the dioxin levels found in the soil and the naphthalene detected in groundwater around the American Creosote Works, she believes the level of environmental devastation there could be described as “ecocide.”
When the EPA finally investigated the Escambia Woods site, it found dioxin levels so atrocious that it evacuated four entire neighborhoods in 1996 and permanently moved the residents into new homes, in what remains the third-largest environmental relocation in U.S. history.
But by then, the decline of the Superfund program had already begun. A year earlier, Republicans in Congress allowed the tax on polluting industries to expire. Industry lobbyists were gaining support in their argument that the tax was unfair, and a larger, anti-tax political movement, led by the Republican party, was growing across the country, said Jim Woolford, a former EPA official who ran the Superfund program from 2006 until he retired last April.
The Superfund Trust, which peaked at $4.7 billion in 1997, soon dwindled to a fraction of that amount: at the beginning of 2021, the program’s budget sat at just $75 million. Without the polluters’ tax, the Superfund program relied almost entirely on Congressional appropriations. But that, too, has fallen to the whims of politics, Woolford said.
As the years carried on, and old and unfinished projects became more costly to clean up, Woolford said, more sites were added to the Superfund program—there are now 1,327 on the National Priorities List.
“I wouldn’t call it the perfect storm, but it is a bad storm because your buying power is going down, the sites are more costly and Congressional appropriations are going down as well,” he said.
The Long Fight to Cleanup Creosote
Keith Wilkins, affable and soft-spoken, joined Escambia County as its natural resources and community redevelopment director in 1998. There was still money in the Superfund Trust. He dreamed of cleaning up the Escambia Wood creosote site and turning it into a park or a commercial hub for new businesses.
But for one reason or another—whether it was the state taking years to negotiate dioxin safety standards with the EPA or the county struggling with liability issues and lining up buyers—the dream never materialized.
Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection did not respond to multiple requests for comment and deferred questions to the EPA.
The Escambia Woods plot remains empty to this day, Wilkins said. “There’s nothing there.”
He hit the same roadblocks working to clean up the American Creosote site, again with the goal of turning it into a park, and the lack of progress over 17 years has been a huge blow to him.
More than a decade into his quest, a 2009 study by researchers at the University of West Florida found sediments beneath Sanders Beach to be heavily polluted. The researchers discovered creosote and high concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which have been linked to cancer, in the aquifer beneath the site, as well.
The study also warned that eating seafood caught in Pensacola Bay could lead to exposure to dioxins, a fact that has prompted many residents to swear off eating fish caught in the bay or food grown in nearby soil. Around the same time, two health studies done on communities living near other wood treatment plants found residents had significantly elevated levels of dioxin in their blood compared with control groups.
In 2015, when Wilkins left the county with retirement in mind, he took some solace from the fact that nearly all of the cleanup at the Escambia Woods site had been completed. As he began discussing positions with the city of Pensacola, there seemed to be no one left to carry on his fight in county government, which is responsible for managing and redeveloping Superfund sites after cleanup.
Then Kelly Hagen moved in next door to Dixie Wilkinson.
When the plucky newcomer bought her home on South I Street, Hagen had no idea how toxic the site just a few feet away actually was. “I didn’t know what a Superfund site was at that time,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot.”
Over time, she would become vice president of the Sanders Beach Neighborhood Association and sit on Pensacola’s Environmental Advisory Board, energized by Wilkinson’s deep-rooted connection to Sanders Beach and her own desire for a safe neighborhood.
When the EPA tested Hagen’s yard for dioxins in 2019 as part of its remedial design for cleaning up the site, it found dioxins at 14 parts per trillion between the surface and six inches deep, twice the State of Florida’s minimum level for cleanup of seven parts per trillion for residential properties.
Samples taken in 2018 in Wilkinson’s yard found dioxins at 17 parts per trillion. The EPA told both in letters describing the results that removal of the soil from their yards would begin after the summer of 2019, “if EPA funding is available.”
The dioxin-laced soil has yet to be touched.
“I started to learn more and more,” Hagen said. “And being on the board, you know, I decided that that was going to be, like, my main focus … What the heck, what’s going on? Where are we at in this process? Why isn’t it moving forward? How do we get it to move forward? What else needs to happen?”
When the EPA tested 54 groundwater wells in March 2020 for naphthalene, a toxic compound derived from coal tar that is considered a possible human carcinogen, five of the samples came back between 1,600 micrograms per liter and 11,000 micrograms per liter. The state’s cleanup level for naphthalene is 14 micrograms per liter.
The University of West Florida researchers took several samples from different fish species and found in many of them concentrations of dioxin above EPA screening levels, which are discretionary guidelines used at hazardous waste sites. But they said the lack of previous data made it impossible to determine how these levels had changed over time; there are no federal or state regulations for monitoring the bioaccumulation of dioxins in fish.
If the EPA ever gets around to cleaning up the site, and her property, Hagen said, she still won’t eat anything from the ground or caught in the bay. “No matter what, even after the cleanup,” she said. “I just won’t—I won’t do it.”
In the Aftermath of Hurricane Sally, an Oil Slick
The threat represented by uncontrolled dioxins and other toxic chemicals leaking from the American Creosote Superfund site was made clear in dramatic fashion last year when Hurricane Sally, a slow-moving Category 2 storm, made landfall in Pensacola at 8 p.m. on Sept. 16 and dumped up to 30 inches of rain in four hours.
Climate scientists say that warming oceans are intensifying hurricanes and greatly increasing the amount of rainfall they bring, often leading to significant flooding.
Wilkinson, whose roof was damaged by the storm, rode out the hurricane on her couch with Jackson, her Australian Shepherd. As the storm let up, a colorful sheen appeared in the water puddled on the sides of the street like an oil slick, and a gasoline-like smell filled the air.
“Have you ever walked on a railroad track on a hot day? Yeah, like that. Sort of tar-y,” said Hagen.
Shortly before the hurricane, the EPA took 46 soil samples around Sanders Beach. Nine came back between seven and 30 parts per trillion for dioxins. But one was found to have 120 and another had 250 parts per trillion. EPA’s default minimum level for cleaning up dioxins is 50 parts per trillion, compared with Florida’s seven parts per trillion.
Subra, the chemist and environmental scientist who first consulted for the Escambia Woods residents back in the 1990s, said she still considers Florida’s seven parts per trillion standard—the toughest in the country—unsafe for residents like Wilkinson and Hagen.
“It is totally not sufficient to reduce exposure for people to live on,” she said.
Hagen remembers how hard she had to push Peter Thorpe, the EPA official overseeing the cleanup, to do testing after Hurricane Sally to determine what levels of dioxins and other chemicals were washed off the site by that much rain.
“It’s not something I should have to be asking for them to do,” she said. “It should be done any time there’s a major storm. And I’ve still not heard back from them on the dioxin reports.”
In an email, EPA spokesperson Brandi Jenkins said the agency tested the soils and wells around the site shortly after being informed of community concerns, experienced travel delays due to the pandemic and “rushed for the fastest laboratory turnaround time possible.”
The soil samples, though not from Wilkinson’s or Hagen’s yards, came back below Florida’s safety standards, but the water samples had site-related contaminants “consistent with previous sampling results,” which exceeded safe standards, including the EPA’s standard for PCP.
Despite all the concern over dioxins, the city issued a construction permit after the hurricane to Hagen’s neighbors who wanted to remodel their home, next to the Superfund site. Hagen watched from her second-story bedroom window as the crew cut down another of the neighborhood’s old oak trees to make way for an inground pool.
The workers, operating without any protective equipment, took the timber and soil to a nearby landfill, unaware of the dioxins that might be embedded in the material. Hagen expressed frustration that there was no warning that contaminated dust would be disturbed over the course of two days.
Wilkins, the former county natural resources director who became Pensacola’s city administrator in 2019, acknowledged that the city overlooked a possible hazard. “There’s no cross referencing” between departments, he said. “It falls through the cracks, just bureaucratically, and it’s very frustrating.”
Petitioning Congress for $34 Million
Earlier this month, Hagen sat cross-legged on her couch, looking over a letter she and other members of the Sanders Beach Neighborhood Association plan to send to their Congressional representatives asking them to support increased funding for Superfund cleanups. Wilkinson was one of the first to sign.
Halfway through her pregnancy, Hagen still plans to canvass the neighborhood and gather as many signatures as she can.
While the American Creosote site is among 34 “unfunded” Superfund locations, the EPA has previously put a $34.1 million price tag on the last stage of the cleanup, according to EPA documents. The plan calls for soil from neighboring yards, like Hagen’s, to be removed and replaced.
Escambia County, which was allocated over $80 million from British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, has not earmarked any funds for the cleanup. County Natural Resources Director Chips Kirschenfeld said the idea “may warrant a discussion” but the county would need assurances the federal government would provide reimbursement.
Much of the pollution remaining on the Superfund site itself will be contained with a 100-foot underground barrier wall and a concrete cap. The process to get to this stage, with a final cleanup plan approved, has been long, complicated and expensive, costing about $30 million.
Now that the state and EPA have agreed on a final remediation plan, the last hurdle is for the Superfund Priority Panel, a group of program experts, to decide the site is enough of a priority, compared with other sites, to receive funding.
Other developments in Washington could help in the long term.
President Biden proposed reinstating the polluters’ tax to help fund the Superfund Trust in his $2 trillion “American Jobs Plan,” as the administration prioritizes climate change and environmental justice as key components of its regulatory agenda.
EPA Press Secretary Nick Conger said in a written statement that the agency is waiting for congressional funding to complete the final clean up of American Creosote Works. “In the event that Congress agrees with President Biden to provide such an increase to the program in the final budget, EPA will be better positioned to address projects that are awaiting funding, such as the American Creosote Works site,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, introduced his own plan this week to reinstate the tax. The Superfund Reinvestment Act is estimated to bring in about $1.7 billion per year and $18.9 billion over 10 years, according to Blumenauer’s office.
Blumenauer has introduced a version of the bill every two years since the late 1990s to no avail. But this year he thinks it has a good chance of passing, with Democrats running majorities in both Congressional chambers and the new administration showing early support.
“The intersection of these issues in terms of environmental justice, environmental cleanup, climate issues, it’s a perfect convergence of forces,” Blumenauer said, “and I think we’re going to get it.”
The need is overwhelming. At least 945 of the nation’s Superfund sites are vulnerable to the increasing threat of hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise, heavy rainfall or wildfires as the planet warms—all of which can spread toxic materials into communities or ecosystems where they endanger human health and wildlife.
With 1,327 hazardous waste sites on the National Priorities List, approximately one in six Americans lives within three miles of a Superfund site, according to a 2020 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit.
Another recent nationwide study from researchers at the University of Houston found that those who live near a Superfund site have their life expectancy decreased by more than two months. For communities burdened by poverty and other negative socioeconomic factors, nearly 15 months of life can be lost. Having spent her life in Sanders Beach next to the American Creosote site, the finding hits home for Wilkinson.
Next door, Hagen headed out one morning last week on her blue and silver Trek bike with her 10-and-a-half-pound poodle, Lexi, in her backpack, to canvas the neighborhood of about 200 homes. She dropped off copies of her letter for people to read, sign and send back. So far, 30 have returned.
Old-timers told her about past neighbors who died of cancer. Newcomers to Sanders Beach said they had health concerns: “‘Is it safe to drink the water? Is my yard contaminated?’ They don’t know how to get that information.”
Her goal is 100 signatures. “It’s going to be time-consuming and exhausting repeating myself multiple times a day,” she said, “But if I’m not going to do it, how else is it going to get done?”