Residents of east Orange County filed a lawsuit on Thursday alleging that Orlando’s coal-burning power plants have poisoned their homes and public spaces with metal, chemical and radioactive residues that have triggered a local spike in rare cancer cases.
An area spanning nearly 30,000 residents and 15,000 homes, including the communities of Avalon Park, Stoneybrook, Eastwood, Cypress Springs, Andover Lakes/Cay and Turnberry Pointe/Cay, is identified as harmed in the lawsuit.
“The danger of such exposure is borne out by an epidemiologic analysis based on data from the Florida Cancer Disease Registry and a site investigation, which found a higher incidence of, for instance, pediatric brain and blood cancers including two exceedingly rare pediatric brain cancers,” states the lawsuit by Cohen Milstein, a national firm that specializes in cases of environmental threats to communities.
“The only source of these cancer-causing Contaminates is the Stanton Power Plant, which has a unique Contaminate fingerprint,” it states.
Filed in state Circuit Court in Orlando, the suit contends that Orlando Utilities Commission’s two coal-burning power plants, which have been operating since 1987 and 1996, have blanketed a large area of east Orange with chimney emissions and windblown dust from raw coal and uncovered piles of coal ash.
“It’s critical that OUC stop its ongoing pollution,” said Steve Morrissey of a second, national law firm behind the lawsuit, Susman Godfrey.
Utility spokesman Tim Trudell said the power plants are highly regulated by state and federal agencies. “OUC meets or exceeds all permitting requirements as environmental stewardship is one of the key principles of our organization,” he said. “Due to the pending litigation, we cannot get into any additional detail at this time.”
City officials stressed in a brief statement that its utility is “independently operated,” although Mayor Buddy Dyer is a voting member of OUC’s governing board, which sets operating policies. The other four members are appointed citizens.
Orlando spokeswoman Karyn Barber said it is important to the city that the utility is committed “to the health of our citizens and stewardship for our environment.”
Also named in the suit are residential real estate developers Lennar Corp. and its subsidiary, U.S. Home Corp., and Avalon Park Group.
Lennar did not respond to requests for comment.
Beat Kahli, president and chief executive officer of Avalon Park Group, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying he had not heard about it until informed by the Orlando Sentinel. Asked if he previously had any concerns about the coal plants, Kahli responded: “not at all.”
The three residents filing the lawsuit are Michelle Irizarry, a resident of Stoneybrook, Valerie Williams, also of Stoneybrook and Joanne Nixon of the Eastwood community.
They do not know each other well, according to Irizarry, who has two young daughters.
A spokeswoman for the law firm described Nixon as a grandmother and Williams as a mother.
Irizarry, a water-engineering consultant and the only of the three made available for an interview, said she and friends became concerned in recent years ago that rare cancers in their communities seemed to be becoming common.
They reached out to the law firm more than a year ago, which led to the investigation of contamination and patterns of cancer cases.
“A group of us began to become worried about whether there was any connection to the big elephant in the room, which is the power plant,” Irizarry said. Law firm investigators “did soil testing of our yards and they found radionuclides and toxic chemicals linked to cancer. I wasn’t expecting so many toxins in the levels that were found.”
OUC’s Stanton Energy Center coal plants are equipped with a pair of chimneys and cooling towers that rise 50 stories and are visible from across much of east Orange County, which is heavily populated with suburban residents.
The utility has defended its coal plants as needed for reliability and to hold down electricity rates for its more than 200,000 customers.
Many of the external and unaccounted for costs of burning coal to produce electricity, a practice increasingly criticized as a leading threat to the planet’s health, have been left mostly unaddressed by OUC in its public meetings.
The lawsuit, if successful, could pose a potentially staggering financial liability for the city of Orlando and its utility.
The suit alleges that the developers marketed and built neighborhoods near the power plants.
The coal plants started up in 1987 and 1996, while construction of nearby subdivisions began to accelerate in the 1990s.
“Despite the fact that these communities were built in the shadow of the Stanton Power Plant, the developers did not take adequate steps to protect residents who bought homes,” the lawsuit alleges.
“The suburban residential communities in the Class Area were touted [as] carefully planned developments that would provide luxurious, yet affordable, neighborhoods in which families and children could safely live, work, and play,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit claims that the contamination from the power plants has made homes and yards health hazards for residents and particularly children, and that private and public spaces should be cleaned up.
“We owe a duty and responsibility to the community and the public to make sure that the areas where people are living are safe and can be enjoyed,” said Theodore Leopold of Cohen Milstein.
Leopold also is a lead lawyer in a class-action lawsuit in the Flint, Mich., water crisis and in another class action against E.I. DuPont de Nemours Co. over contamination of North Carolina’s Cape Fear River.
Irizarry said she now feels trapped in her home because the lawsuit’s investigation has documented the contamination of her property, which she fear will reduce its value.
She said she hopes for a swift removal of contamination from her home, her two daughters’ schools and other public spaces.
Orlando Utilities Commission this month launched $1 million worth of studies that among many objectives will consider shutting down its coal plants.
Keys concerns in the studies are the plants’ costs and their emissions of planet-heating gases.
Largely unexamined in the run-up to the studies was the possibility that the coal plants could be contaminating nearby neighbors.
Leopold said that regulatory agencies have given little attention to potential hazards to east Orange County of chimney emissions and coal-ash dust.
“Nobody before has drilled down into the science and epidemiology,” Leopold said.
The lawsuit asserts that coal naturally contains radioactive elements and that the Stanton plants imports coal from “most radioactive coal basin in the United States.”
The lawsuit states that polonium-210, a product of decaying uranium-238, which is found in coal, was detected in east Orange in significant concentrations but is otherwise exceedingly rare in nature.
“Polonium-210 in the Class Area can be attributed only to the Stanton Power Plant,” the lawsuit alleges.
Along with a high rate of cancers among children, the lawsuit alleges increased occurrences of leukemia and neuroblastoma cases among adults.
“We have had to make changes in our lifestyles here like I used to let my children go out and play. My little one, she loves to collect leaves and dig for worms and that kind of thing,” Irizarry said. “I have had to discourage them from doing that it and it kind of breaks my heart that I can’t let them play outside as much as I use to.”
Please consider supporting local journalism by purchasing a digital subscription to the Orlando Sentinel. Click here to get one today.