It was the summer of 2018, and the folks in Clay County’s Russell Landing had prevented Solite from selling its contaminated industrial land to a residential developer. They knew they had not won the war, of course, only a small battle. But they hoped the next one would wait in the distant future. They were wrong.
In the early 1950s, billion-dollar corporation Northeast Solite purchased some 900 acres of pristine farmland in Green Cove Springs from a county commissioner’s family. The Solite plant dug clay and baked it in kilns to produce building and drainage materials. Initially, the facility used clean fuels, but that changed in the early ’70s, when toxins became attractive alternatives for corner-cutting corporations. Northeast Solite operated several plants on the Eastern seaboard and quickly got in line to transport and burn hazardous waste.
Still, Solite brass had several hurdles to climb. Clay County ordinance prohibited the transport and burning of hazardous wastes. Solite quietly ignored the regs, and county authorities let the corporation skate. The second hurdle was the fact that its existing kilns and equipment were not designed to safely burn hazardous waste. Yet the facility continued to burn it—under the company’s existing clean-fuel permit. An appropriate permit was pursued only half-heartedly (and unsuccessfully).
Meanwhile, Solite facilities raked in huge profits. And everything around the plant began to suffer as Solite’s faulty equipment spewed the harsh chemicals over Russell. As the permit process stretched into years, the company received huge fines—which state authorities reduced to pennies on the dollar. Surprisingly, state and federal regulators knew the neighborhood was in danger. A 42-page EPA document released in 1992 stated that “hazardous constituents … have been detected in the sediment at the facility. These hazardous constituents pose a threat to human health and the environment.” (The report also stated that hazardous compounds had been detected in Mill Log Creek, which flows into Black Creek.)
By 1993, neighbors noticed an increase in the incidents of serious illnesses, cancers and deaths in their small area. Residents came before the Clay County Commission and asked for a health study. Then-Commissioner Buddy Griffin fought for the residents, but the rest of the commissioners refused to help.
Eventually, however, state regulators were pressured to act. The night before they descended on Solite, the company literally disappeared. Employees said a supervisor directed them to dismantle the plant and scrape everything, except several buildings on the property, into the hazardous ponds. By the time daylight rose on Solite, it no longer existed.
In the early spring of 2018, however, Solite was back, this time sporting a benign new name: Stoneridge Farms. Executives had dissolved the million-dollar-plus Solite Corporation, stripped the assets, and created the new entity. They wanted the county to rezone the property from agricultural to residential and allow the construction of three homes per acre under the eye of a Jacksonville developer. Many of the Russell residents who had fought Solite back in the ‘90s were dead, sick or had moved. Consequently, most of the Russell residents knew nothing about the site’s history. But as Stoneridge slowly moved its designs through the Clay County bureaucracy, residents came to learn the sordid story of Solite. In June 2018, after a series of county committee appearances marked by public outcry, Solite came before a county commission that bore no resemblance to the “good ole boy” commission of 1995. This one voted five-to-zero against Solite.
Now residents have learned that Solite is at it again, petitioning the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to sell the land for a large commercial venture, which wouldn’t require the same stringent regulations as residential developments. Since the FDEP has been unwilling or unable to communicate, Dr. Kristin Burke, a veteran of previous Solite skirmishes, put the issue on the docket to appear before the commission on February 11. Along with other residents, she and Randy Gillis spoke about their concerns. Dr. Burke said health issues still abound in their neighborhood. She said since she and most of her neighbors were not aware of Solite’s wrongdoings, they swam in the waters and ponds around their homes. She teared up as she described her husband’s mysterious illnesses. She related how her healthy young daughter developed a strange infection in her hip that painfully and literally ate away her hip joint.
Randy Gillis told the commissioners that he and his neighbors were “scared” of what was happening to their neighbors. He also said that he is concerned that three of the five commissioners will be term-limited in November, including Diane Hutchings, their most stalwart supporter. Hence, there will be no continuity for communication about Solite.
Russell residents have good reason to be scared. If the FDEP does not do its due diligence, if it simply approves the commercial development, Solite will have a strong hand against the county, and may be able to sue its way to victory. Or, the EPA and FDEP can sue Solite and force it to pay for cleanup. The county may also have this option. In other hazardous-waste disasters, the polluters were forced to buy the residents out of their homes and allow the land to lay fallow. Solite’s wealthy parent company, Northeast Solite, could afford to do this. But there seems to be no entity willing to seek the justice the good folks in the Russell Community deserve.