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City Holds Workshop On Sludge Dumping In Dunbar

A table of tools to conduct environmental tests are in the foreground, while people look at maps of the dump site in the background.
Quincy J. Walters
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The City of Fort Myers held a workshop this week to inform residents about what kind of testing will be done on a dump site in a predominantly black neighborhood.  Back in the 1960's, the City  dumped a byproduct from a water treatment plant in an empty lot in the neighborhood known as Dunbar. For decades, the city didn’t tell residents what that byproduct was. It included arsenic. 

Attending the workshop was a lot like going to an amusement park. People were put in a holding room, where a narrator with a booming voice gave some history 

“In 1962—over 50 years ago—the city agreed to purchase the South Street property to be used for lime sludge disposal," the narrator said. 

The presentation gave a mutually agreed upon definition of lime sludge by the city of Fort Myers and by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.   

They define it as a byproduct of the lime-softening water treatment process. Lime is added to water to reduce hardness and reduce chemicals like calcium, magnesium and arsenic.

“Lime sludge is often applied to farm fields where the soil pH is too low thereby enhancing plant growth,”  the narrator said. 

However, the city purchased that vacant lot on South Street in Dunbar and opted to dump the sludge there. Different generations of kids played on that lot purchased by the city to hold 25,000 cubic yards of lime sludge. People have wells that could have been affected by the water that ran off from the lot.

The concern is that people ingested and touched whatever chemical byproduct was there. Now, the city wants to find out exactly what was in that byproduct.

At the workshop this week, there was another room with information about the dumping. There were tables with maps of where the dumping happened, tables with documents related to the site from the Florida DEP and tables with tools to be used to test the water and soil at the dump site.

Residents were given comment forms to submit. Theresa Hamilton filled one out. She said she lives right across the street from the dump site.

“My grand baby used to play over there and she came down sick and now she use a breathing machine. And I have to keep other kids from playing over there, because from all the years I was raised in the area, they told me it was a sinkhole," said Hamilton. "When it rains over there, there’s a loud smell . . . and you can smell it early in the morning and right after it starts raining. ” 

Hamilton said the city had decades to stop dumping, but it didn’t and she has a theory about that.

“It’s the black neighborhood," she said.  "They don’t care nothing about the black neighborhood.” 

Fellow Dunbar resident Willie Chatters, who’s lived there since the sixties, wouldn’t necessarily say that’s the reason why. He thinks it has to do with population volume, rather than  demographic.

“I guess a lot of people weren’t living there at the time, you know, and then people started to build up," he said. "But even when people started to build up, they shoulda told somebody about it. I’m pretty sure a lot of people wouldn’t have built there if they knew there was a problem.” 

Dumping started in 1962 and there’s no record of when the city stopped. However, in 1993 the city built a new water treatment plant which no longer produced lime sludge.

Geologist Scott McManus was at the workshop to explain the equipment that’ll be used to test the dump site.

“What we have here is an O.V.A. or P.I.D. meter," said McManus. "This is used to sniff soil and it takes readings of volatile organics that are in the soil. He picked up a bright yellow handheld device with an antenna on top.

McManus said a geologist's role is to test the water and soil and to determine what the environmental impacts have been.

Gary Maier, with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said lime sludge is not considered a significant risk to humans.

“The assessment that’s being conducted now will provide very good scientific information and part of the assessment that’s in progress is to determine exactly what risks there were both historically and going forward,” said Maier.

In addition to the geological tests, the city is also seeking permission to test the wells of people who live within a quarter mile of where the lime sludge was dumped.

Citizens have until August 15th to submit comments. Testing won’t begin until after those comments  are reviewed.

But Theresa Hamilton, the Dunbar resident who said she lives across the street from the dumping site, said whatever the results may be, it’s too little too late.

For information on tentative testing and/or to submit a comment, visit

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Quincy Walters is a reporter and backup host for WGCU.