Radiation lawsuit filed by Lakeland residents brings more than 100 inquiries to lawyer

Article Courtesy of The Ledger

By Suzie Schottelkotte

Published March 23, 2017


LAKELAND --  A lawsuit against the Drummond Company by residents in Lakeland's Oakbridge and Grasslands communities, which Drummond developed, unleashed a flood of interest Wednesday in the allegations that radiation levels at the 1,362-acre property are unsafe.

Neal O'Toole, a lawyer at Lilly, O'Toole & Brown in Lakeland, said he fielded more than 100 calls and emails after news broke about the federal lawsuit.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said Wednesday, "but we have been inundated. I haven't been able to get back to a lot of them."

Marsha Sherouse, who's lived in Oakbridge for 10 years, was among those who wanted to know more.

"I definitely want more information," she said. "I want everyone to know and be aware that we have this situation. It appears the evidence is there."

Sherouse said she and her husband, Neil, ordered radon kits Wednesday to determine the radiation levels in their condominium.


"We are very concerned about the possible health issues," she said. "It's quite possible we will join the lawsuit."

Others, though, aren't to that point.

John Snapp, president of the Oakbridge Homeowners Association and Stonewater Homeowners Association, said he and other in the associations haven't become involved with the litigation yet.

"No one has approached us about it," he said, "and none of us is a party to the lawsuit at this time."

He said that may change as the litigation progresses, but at a homeowners' meeting Tuesday night, members said they wanted to wait to see where it goes.

The class-action lawsuit, filed by Oakbridge resident John J. Jerue, who goes by Jeff, claims Drummond knew the land was contaminated after it had been mined for phosphate, but failed to tell prospective buyers about the risks. A class-action lawsuit has to be certified by the presiding judge before everyone in that group is included. Everyone in the class is automatically a part of the suit, unless they opt out.

  • Residents of Grasslands, Oakbridge sue Drummond Co. over radiation

  • Environmental groups sue federal agencies over effects of phosphate mining in Central Florida

It seeks to force Drummond to clean up the land, provide medical monitoring for residents and pay unspecified punitive damages for failing to disclose the problem.

Drummond hasn't responded to requests for comment. No hearing date has been set.

The lawsuit claims the radiation exposes residents to the equivalent of a chest X-ray a day.

The lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Tampa by four law firms with offices in Houston, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C., along with the Lakeland firm.

The lawsuit refers to numerous documents from local, state and federal health and environmental agencies that identified problems related to radiation in the land dating to 1978, the year Drummond purchased the active phosphate operations there. The company continued to mine the land until 1982, when it shifted its focus to developing the multi-use communities of Oakbridge and Grasslands.

The site, straddling Harden Boulevard just north of the Polk Parkway, totals nearly 1,500 homes and several commercial centers, including Lakeside Village.

Jerue said Wednesday he recognizes the lawsuit could affect property values in the development, including his own, but he didn't think he had a choice.

"Now that we know, what should we do — just sit here and be exposed to this stuff?" he asked. "If this was something Drummond didn't know, it's one thing. But from what I have read, they knew."

Among the reports referred to in the lawsuit is a 2011 letter to the federal Environmental Protection Agency that was signed by five Florida members of the House of Representatives regarding plans to conduct flyover surveys of developed land that had been mined for phosphate.

The letter, signed by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican whose district includes the Drummond communities, sought advanced notification of any aerial radiation surveying or testing, and questioned the need for it given the studies conducted by the Florida Department of Health.

The letter also noted the phosphate industry's significant role in Florida's economy.

The lawsuit stated that pressure from the phosphate industry and elected officials caused the EPA to abandon its study in 2014.

On Wednesday, Ross responded to the issues raised in the lawsuit.

"The 2011 letter I sent to then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had absolutely zero to do with the case or the community mentioned in the aforementioned case and recent news reports, nor am I party to or involved with the case whatsoever," Ross wrote an email. "Furthermore, the flyovers at issue in my 2011 letter were not conducted over the community mentioned, but instead near the Coronet site in Plant City.

"My 2011 letter had a very strict and narrow purpose: to request information about the unannounced and dangerous low altitude aerial flyovers conducted by the EPA without any notice to the public or local, state, and federal officials, which the EPA is required to do," he said. "This letter was in response to numerous fearful residents in my district who called my office asking for answers and help after sighting the low flying aircraft over their homes.

"In fact, multiple reports from 2016 stated the flyovers were not conducted for any environmental concern," he said in Wednesday's email. "These reports indicated the EPA's motive for its flyovers was to provide payback favors to Morocco for donating millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State."