Tamara Lush, Author at Florida Politics

Tamara Lush

As Pasco County sinkhole widens, some are determined to stay put

The Florida sinkhole that swallowed two homes last week isn’t getting any deeper, but it’s getting wider, officials said Wednesday — and one resident who’s back home after being evacuated is vowing to stay unless the hole consumes her house.

“I’m apprehensive, a little nervous,” said Patty Camunas, 57, whose family lives near the sinkhole.

But she added, “Where are you going to go? There are sinkholes all over Florida. Unless something happens that the sinkhole takes my house, I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.”

Camunas was at work Friday morning when the sinkhole swallowed one house about 200 feet behind hers. Her husband and daughter were home when officials told them to evacuate. They were allowed to return Saturday but decided to give it an additional 24 hours. On Sunday, they returned.

“The only thing we lost is the food from the power being shut off,” she said.

Now, she said, the main commotion on her cul-de-sac is from curious people driving to the neighborhood to take selfies with the sinkhole in the background.

During a news conference Wednesday, officials in Pasco County — a suburban area north of Tampa — said that because of the sinkhole’s growth, residents of two additional homes in the neighborhood have been warned they may need to evacuate. They were told to gather their possessions in preparation of leaving, said Kevin Guthrie, Pasco County’s assistant administrator for public safety.

Five homes near the sinkhole already had been evacuated.

“This is not a time for panic. We have somebody out here monitoring this sinkhole, monitoring the expansion. We will let people know in plenty of time that they need to get their stuff together and be ready to go,” Guthrie said. “When we say, ‘Now is the time to leave.’ It’s time to leave. It’s not time to pack things up.”

The edges of the sinkhole are caving in because there’s no support for the sandy soil as it dries out, officials said.

It’s now about 235 feet (72 meters) wide, about 10 feet (3 meters) wider than it was several days ago. It remains 50 feet (15 meters) deep.

As the water in the sinkhole recedes, the sand on the right-angled banks can’t support the weight of the ground and it’s giving away. Engineers believe the solution lies in quickly getting dirt into the area to create a sloping bank that can keep the edges of the sinkhole from falling in, Guthrie said.

“We’re working to that end right now,” Guthrie said.

Engineers hope to start bringing in dirt and removing debris over the weekend, or early next week.

None of 20 water wells tested came back positive for E. coli, but water samples from 17 of the wells will be re-tested for any signs of contamination. Greg Crumpton, a local health official, said elements found in water from those wells may be the result of improper maintenance by homeowners, but health officials want to make sure it’s not from the sinkhole.

Pasco County’s risk manager has told officials that the response to the sinkhole could cost at least $1.5 million but it will be likely much more, Guthrie said.

For Camunas, a lifelong Florida resident who built her home in Pasco in 1982, sinkholes are part of life. She’d heard about a sinkhole in years past in another part of her subdivision.

Florida is highly prone to naturally occurring sinkholes because there are caverns below ground of limestone, a porous rock that easily dissolves in water.

Acidic rain can, over time, eat away the limestone and natural caverns that lie under much of the state, causing sinkholes. Both extremely dry weather and very wet weather can trigger sinkholes. State geologists generally consider March-September “sinkhole season” because that’s when the state receives most of its rainfall.

In 2013 in Florida, a 37-year-old man was killed when a hole opened up underneath his bedroom. That sinkhole, which garnered international headlines, opened in Hillsborough County, about an hour south of the sinkhole that swallowed two homes this month.

Engineering experts said it was too dangerous to retrieve the man’s body, so they demolished the home and filled the hole with gravel.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

State officials: Racing greyhounds test positive for cocaine

At least 12 greyhound racing dogs in Florida have tested positive for cocaine, and their trainer has had his license suspended.

It’s at least the second instance this year of racing greyhounds testing positive for cocaine. The dogs raced at Bestbet Orange Park in northeast Florida near Jacksonville. The state is home to 12 of the 19 dog tracks in the U.S., where 40 states have outlawed the sport.

Although supporters say the dogs are treated well, the industry faces intense scrutiny. Records show Florida’s greyhound industry has had 62 cocaine positives since 2008.

In the Jacksonville area case, first reported by WTLV-TV, the dogs tested positive in March and April for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine, according to documents from the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The documents are dated June 9 and say that trainer Charles McClellan “is a threat to animals in his control, custody and care.”

The Associated Press could not locate a phone number or email address for McClellan, but he told the TV station he had lost his job as a Greyhound trainer. The agency has scheduled a formal hearing on his case for Aug. 23.

In a statement to news outlets, Bestbet Orange Park said it supports the swift action taken by the state in suspending the trainer’s license. During March and April, McClellan was an employee of the Steve Sarras Kennel.

Sarras, of West Virginia, did not respond to a Facebook message and did not answer a phone call seeking comment. He also serves on the National Greyhound Association Board.

Racing dogs often are owned by one or more people. They are then placed with a kennel and have a trainer. The trainers are often independent contractors and are responsible for the animals’ well-being. They also are the ones disciplined if something amiss is discovered.

In May, the state revoked the license of a St. Petersburg trainer whose dogs tested positive for cocaine.

Carey Theil, executive director of GREY2K USA in Boston, a track monitoring group that opposes greyhound racing, called the most recent cased “breathtaking” because of the number of dogs that tested positive.

Regulators don’t typically investigate how the dogs got cocaine in their systems, and it’s unclear in the latest case how that happened. But Theil said the most likely scenarios are someone trying to fix races, or the trainer using the drug and the dogs coming in contact by accident.

One of the dogs in the latest case tested positive six times, including during a race where it finished first. The records showed the dog had cocaine in its system for two of its best races, Theil said.

(Story by The Associated Press, reprinted with permission.)

Body farm for researchers and detectives opens near Tampa

A “body farm” where researchers can study how corpses decompose will open next week in the Tampa Bay area with the burial of four donated bodies.

Officials broke ground Friday on the Adam Kennedy Forensics Field, a five-acre patch of land north of Tampa. It’s the seventh such facility in the nation and the first in Florida’s subtropical environment. The oldest and most famous body farm in the U.S. is at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Officials in Florida hope their farm, to be used at first by detectives and forensic anthropologists at the nearby University of South Florida, will draw scientists from other countries and grow to be the largest in the world.

“Our forensic crime scene investigators will get premium training as a result of this,” said former Pasco County Sheriff Bob White. “This will enhance our training tenfold.”

Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at USF, predicts that by studying how bodies react in Florida’s sweltering humidity, more evidence will be preserved and breakthroughs made in real-life cases. The research also would benefit other countries with subtropical and tropical climates, she said.

Bodies are obtained by donation. The first four will be buried next week, and in January, Kimmerle and other researchers will hold a course for detectives on exhumation. Later, other bodies will be exposed to water and buried during different seasons to determine how different factors affect decomposition and evidence. After the bodies are studied, the skeletons will be cleaned and preserved and made available for future research.

“The legacy of the donations, it is forever,” said Kimmerle.

About 30 people have already filled out paperwork to donate their bodies to the farm when they die. Kimmerle said if someone who wants to donate dies within 200 miles of the facility, researchers will pick up the body at no cost. Anyone beyond that range would have to pay for their body to be transported to the facility.

While the center is currently a field and grove of trees near the Pasco County Jail, officials eventually hope to build an indoor-outdoor training center that would include classrooms, a morgue, a training facility and evidence storage.

The Florida Legislature tucked $4.3 million for the facility in this year’s state budget, but it’s unclear whether Gov. Rick Scott will approve the budget. Kimmerle and Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said they’ll also raise outside money for the project.

For now, researchers are concentrating on the science. The field is named after one of the people who will be buried next week.

Adam Kennedy, a 46-year-old principal at a local elementary school, died in a car wreck in January. His widow Abigail Kennedy said her husband always wanted to donate his body to science. On Friday, she spoke to a crowd at the forensics field.

“There’s so much bittersweet in all of this. Adam wanted to continue teaching after his death,” she said. “It would be my last gift to education, he’d say. This couldn’t be more perfect.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Tom Rooney faces raucous crowd at town hall meeting

It took about three minutes for the majority of the crowd at Florida Congressman Tom Rooney‘s town hall meeting Monday to start booing about everything from the environment to health care.

“You are supporting an appropriations bill to help clean up the Everglades. You recently voted to repeal a rule that allows coal companies to dump toxic ash in waterways throughout the whole country. Would you care to explain?” one man asked.

“We don’t live in a perfect world,” said the Republican congressman, standing alone in front of a podium on stage at the Englewood Event Center.

And that’s when the shouting started.

“That was quick,” quipped Rooney, who’s in his fifth term in Congress and represents a swath of rural and suburban counties in the middle of Florida, roughly from Lake Okeechobee to the east and toward Venice on the Gulf Coast.

Little more than a month into President Donald Trump‘s administration, Republican members of Congress are returning home to encounter crowds of concerned and, at times, raucous voters, pressing for explanations of the president’s plans for health care, immigration policies and cabinet appointees, among other things.

Those subjects came up repeatedly at Monday’s two-hour event. At times, it devolved into a holler-fest between Rooney, anti-Trump voters and pro-Trump voters.

Said Rooney, throwing his hands in the air: “So you want Trump to fail?”

The crowd screamed and clapped. One person yelled, “Yes, he already is failing!”

A Trump supporter screamed a response from the back: “You people suck!”

It appeared that a majority of the 300-strong crowd were retired, white and opposed to Trump. People grilled Rooney on the Affordable Care Act, pleading with him not to vote for a plan that doesn’t cover pre-existing medical conditions. Rooney replied that any health care revision ought to cover pre-existing medical conditions.

Another person asked what, if anything, Congress or the voters could do to prevent further erosion of the public’s trust. Many who attended, Republicans and Democrats alike, said they’d like to see the country less polarized, but that didn’t stop them from shouting their frustrations about the opposite party and politicians in general.

“A lot of people think that being a member of Congress is somehow us riding around in limos,” Rooney said. “I’m not looking for sympathy. Our approval rating is below Fidel Castro’s, and he’s dead.”

Several asked about Trump and Russia, and whether anyone on Trump’s campaign team was influenced by Russian operatives.

Rooney, who’s on the House Intelligence Committee, said, “we have zero evidence that the Russian government and the Trump campaign coordinated in any way.”

The 46-year-old congressman also offered some dire predictions about Social Security and said it must be fixed, otherwise younger generations will be out of luck.

“I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, if you hate my guts or if you voted for me. I’m telling the truth. If we don’t fix our retirement programs now, I’m not getting Social Security,” he said. “Do you not want that for your kids and grandchildren?”

The room erupted in various shouts about “the cap.”

Asked whether he wants to see Trump release his tax returns, Rooney said he believes presidents should do so.

He added, however, “The people didn’t care. He’s president.”

“We care!” people chanted.

“We don’t care!” A man in a Make America Great hat yelled.

In the end, everyone agreed on one thing: Rooney showed guts, standing up in front of a room full of angry voters. He said he was going to Washington Tuesday to vote, and walked off stage to a smattering of applause.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

A rose for family of U.S. plantation owner executed by Fidel Castro

One of Miami’s oldest cemeteries is so close to the Fidel Castro death celebrations at Café Versailles in Little Havana that its marble angels echo with conga-line cheers from Calle Ocho.

Most of the people interred at Caballero Woodlawn Cemetery-North on Southwest Eighth Street — the many Cubans buried there, for sure — hoped to live long enough to hear the celebrations.

There’s Jorge Mas Canosa, a Bay of Pigs veteran and founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, resting in his tomb under Cuban and American flags. A few rows over is Carlos Prio Socarras, Cuba’s president from 1948 until 1952 and an outspoken Castro critic. His grave is adorned with a Cuban flag mosaic.

And then there’s the grave of the family of Robert Fuller, a burnished bronze marker set in the lush grass. It’s not as flashy as the others, and Fuller’s body isn’t even there. But he’s important to students of Cuban history as one of a small group of Cuban-Americans who tried to overthrow Castro six months before the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 photo, Frances R. Fuller points to a photo in Life Magazine, dated Oct. 31, 1960, with the photo, of her brother Robert Fuller, center, flanked by parents William Fuller, left, Jennie Fuller, right, at her home in Miami. In 1960, Robert Fuller joined an ill-fated mission to lead a boatload of poorly trained Cubans from Miami in hopes of mustering up a counter-revolution on the island. Instead, the men were quickly captured, and Fuller confessed under torture to counterrevolutionary activities. Fuller was sentenced to death by firing squad. The family asked to bring his body back with them to America. Castro’s people said no. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

“Grandma, I wish you were here to see this,” Robert Fuller’s niece, Katherine, said Tuesday, bending with a delicate pink rose in her hand over the grave of Jennie Fuller — Robert’s mother — and other relatives.

After Castro’s forces seized power in Havana in 1959, the new regime “repeatedly harassed and threatened” members of the Fuller family and sought to seize the 10,000-acre agricultural business they had operated since 1903, according to the family’s lawsuit against Cuba.

Robert Fuller, who had dual Cuban and U.S. citizenship, was born on the Holguin plantation in 1934 and felt Cuban, Katherine said, even after serving as a U.S. marine in Korea. In 1960, at 25, he joined an ill-fated mission to lead a boatload of poorly trained Cubans from Miami in hopes of mustering up a counter-revolution on the island.

Instead, the men were quickly captured, and Fuller confessed under torture to counterrevolutionary activities. According to an Associated Press dispatch from Havana on his trial, he told the court that he joined the invaders because the Castro government had taken over his father’s ranch, “earned by the sweat of his brow and very honorably.”

His mother, Jennie sobbed in the courtroom where, in front of jeering crowds, Fuller was sentenced to death by firing squad. The family asked to bring his body back with them to America. Castro’s people said no. Jennie Fuller left Cuba, never to return, and her son remains buried somewhere on the island in an unmarked mass grave, court records say.

In 2006, a Miami-Dade judge awarded the family $400 million in damages after Cuba ignored their lawsuit. A decade later, they haven’t seen a dime.

Katherine Fuller was born in Miami two years after her uncle was executed, and raised in both the Cuban and American traditions of her family. Now 55, she still lives in the city where her uncle is remembered as a hero. There’s even a street in Little Havana named after him.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 photo, Frances R. Fuller, left, and her niece Kathrine Fuller, right, sister and niece respectively, of Robert Fuller, show photos of Fuller at their home in Miami. In 1960, Robert Fuller joined an ill-fated mission to lead a boatload of poorly trained Cubans from Miami in hopes of mustering up a counter-revolution on the island. Instead, the men were quickly captured, and Fuller confessed under torture to counterrevolutionary activities. Fuller was sentenced to death by firing squad. The family asked to bring his body back with them to America. Castro’s people said no. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Castro’s death was a joyful moment, she said, but also bittersweet. None of the exiled members of the family has ever returned to Cuba. Katherine always was too afraid when Castro was alive, given her surname’s notoriety on the island. More than anything, Fuller wonders why Castro ruined “such a rich treasure of an island.”

But she also knows that her own history and family’s legacy are intertwined with Castro’s. Her grandmother and other relatives have carried the pain of Robert Fuller’s execution all their lives.

Jennie Fuller grew her hair long and it flowed to her waist in a thick braid.

“We’d say to her, ‘Grandma, when are you going to cut your hair?’ ” Katherine Fuller recalled. “And she’d always say, ‘I’ll cut my hair when Castro falls.’ “

Jennie Fuller died in 2001, her long hair intact.

But the rose bushes she planted at the family’s Miami property in 1959 lived on.

On Tuesday, Fuller slipped the little pink rose from those bushes alongside a bouquet of lilies on the family’s Thanksgiving table, and expressed cautious optimism about Cuba’s future. She’s in favor of lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba if the Cuban government is willing to give people on the island more freedom, something President Barack Obama called for. She thinks it’s possible with Castro’s passing.

“I think what Obama has done is the first step,” she said, referring to the president’s relaxing of travel regulations.

Katherine is even considering a trip to the island now that Castro’s gone. Somehow it seems safer. She’d like to meet her other relatives, and see the plantation her grandparents once owned.

But first, there’s some living to do in Miami.

“We’re going to go to Versailles now,” she said softly. “We’ll have a coffee, and a pastry.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Ex-Gov. Charlie Crist aims for political comeback in House

It’s a sunny fall day at Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg, and Charlie Crist is in his element.

“What’s your name?,” he purrs to a woman in a wheelchair, taking her hand. He beams a white smile that matches his snow-white hair, contrasting with his tan face. “May I get a picture?” he asks, bending down on one knee. The woman giggles.

Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, is a former governor, former state attorney general and was on the short list to be Sen. John McCain‘s vice presidential running mate in 2008. This year, he’s setting his sights on a seat in the U.S. House.

Democrats are counting on Crist and other candidates to make significant inroads into the Republicans’ commanding House majority. Florida offers at least three potential Democratic gains as the party tries to cobble together a 30-seat pickup.

Crist, a 60-year-old lawyer, faces Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. David Jolly. The race may be one of the few nationally in which the Republican candidate is using Donald Trump against the Democrat, noting that Trump helped Crist raise money when he was with the GOP.

“It’s a crazy year,” Crist says.

He hopes it’s his year.

Crist has the hometown advantage — he was raised in St. Petersburg — and is running in a redrawn district that includes more African-Americans.

Jolly, who has represented the 13th Congressional District since 2014, is hoping Crist’s complicated political past will make him vulnerable.

“The fundamental issue is trust. Everybody knows Charlie, they know he’s been on every side of the issue,” Jolly says. “By most polls, this will be a neck-and-neck race.”

A recent poll by St. Pete Polls shows Crist with a narrow lead, while another tally by the Public Opinion Research Laboratory at the University of North Florida shows Crist leading Jolly 54 percent to 36.

Crist, who was governor from 2007 to 2011, ran for Senate as a Republican in 2010 but lost to Marco Rubio in the primary. Crist quit the Republican Party, ran in the general election as an independent and lost. He switched party affiliation again, becoming a Democrat, and ran unsuccessfully for governor against Rick Scott in 2014.

The 43-year-old Jolly has his own complications. He earlier had announced he would run for U.S. Senate, but when Rubio dropped out of the presidential race and said he would run for re-election, Jolly got out of that race.

Jolly says his biggest accomplishments are taking on campaign finance reform and backing a bill that would prohibit members of Congress from directly soliciting campaign contributions.

Jolly set himself apart from many Republicans by refusing to fundraise for the national party while working in Washington. And he refuses to endorse Trump.

“I’ve been fully abandoned by the Republican Party,” Jolly said. Still, he’s done pretty well with fundraising; as of Sept. 30, he’s raised $1.75 million to Crist’s $1.4 million. But Crist is getting help from the Democratic Party and other political action committees.

And Trump has become another flashpoint in the campaign.

In September, Jolly released a video that says Trump helped Crist raise money several times when Crist was a Republican.

And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aired television ads using doctored photos to make it appear Jolly and Trump are pals. Only this week did Crist denounce the ad.

That negative ad turned some Crist voters off.

“I may end up voting for Jolly out of spite for the Democrats putting out negative information,” said Joe Jordan, a 36-year-old IT professional.

Crist touts his record on education, the economy and the environment, and says he supports a woman’s right to choose.

In the St. Petersburg park, he smiles at Velva Lee Heraty and her miniature Shih Tzu. Heraty shows him photos of when he walked little Miss Nena outside a cafe.

“That was two years ago,” Heraty says.

Crist gives her a serious look. That’s when Gov. Scott defeated him by a single percentage point.

“Two years ago. We’re hoping for a better result this time,” Crist says.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Mosaic hopes to plug giant sinkhole by spring

A massive sinkhole at a fertilizer plant should be plugged by spring, months after contaminated water and waste began flowing into Florida’s main drinking water aquifer, the company said Friday.

In an email to The Associated Press, Mosaic spokeswoman Callie Neslund said the company recently finished a survey of the sinkhole cavity.

“Based on the survey results, the company now has a better understanding of the sinkhole dimensions – which is a critical step in remediating the sinkhole,” she wrote.

Neslund said the upper cavity is between 140 feet and 150 feet in diameter at its widest point, and about 220 feet deep.

Mosaic – one of the world’s largest producers of phosphate and potash for fertilizer – previously acknowledged that the contamination had spread to groundwater around the sinkhole.

The Minnesota-based company’s announcement about plugging the sinkhole comes after it reached a deal with the state Department of Environmental Protection earlier this week. Mosaic is required to put up $40 million, and if it fails to follow through on the cleanup, the company will face fines of up to $10,000 per day.

Meanwhile, state environmental officials said that contaminates found in private wells near the site are not believed to be related to the sinkhole.

Agency spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email that private wells near the Mosaic site where high levels of contamination have been found may be associated with “natural geologic deposits and processes.

“In other cases, it may be related to the construction of the water well itself,” she wrote.

Neslund said that the company has not detected elevated levels of contamination in wells elsewhere on its property. It is working to pump out tainted water from a well near the sinkhole.

A Mosaic employee discovered the water loss caused by the sinkhole Aug. 27 and the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was notified the next day, as required by Florida law, according to David Jellerson, the company’s senior director for environmental and phosphate projects.

However, homeowners near Mosaic’s New Wales plant weren’t first notified by Mosaic or the state agency until Sept. 19, after news of the sinkhole broke the previous week. After that, Mosaic began providing them with bottled water.

By then, a huge wastewater pond had mostly disappeared through the hole in the massive pile of phosphogypsum, a fertilizer byproduct that contains minute traces of radiation.

Mosaic stacks the chemicals in hill-size piles that can be hundreds of feet tall and visible from space.

Neslund said as of Friday, the facility received about 5 inches of rainfall since the beginning of October.

“We have not determined how much of that rainfall entered the sinkhole,” she wrote. “The recovery well continues to pump about 5 million gallons of water each day. Onsite groundwater monitoring confirms that any impacted water is being recovered.”

Outcry grows over delay in warning about Mosaic sinkhole, contamination

Neighbors of a huge sinkhole sending cascades of contaminated water and fertilizer plant waste into Florida’s main drinking-water aquifer are fearful and fuming that it took weeks for them to be notified about the disaster.

Many are still waiting anxiously for results from tests for radiation and toxic chemicals in their well water.

Meanwhile, the Mosaic Co. — one of the world’s largest producers of phosphate and potash for fertilizer —acknowledged Wednesday the contamination had spread to groundwater around the sinkhole.

So far, more than 200 million gallons of tainted water has drained from a waste heap through a 45-foot-wide hole into the Floridan aquifer, which provides water to millions of people in the state.

On Thursday, company spokeswoman Jackie Barron said the acidity and sulphates were found in a recovery well being used to pull water out within a quarter mile of the sinkhole. She said monitoring wells farther away were still showing no signs of contamination, and that no contamination was found beyond the limits of the company’s property.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and the company say contaminated water has not migrated enough to threaten private wells in the area, but more than 600 people have accepted Mosaic’s offer of free testing since being told of the disaster.

Some residents say they haven’t received any results yet, and are angry they weren’t told until three weeks after Mosaic reported the groundwater contamination to Florida officials.

A Mosaic employee discovered the water loss caused by the sinkhole Aug. 27 and the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were notified the next day, as required by Florida law, according to David Jellerson, the company’s senior director for environmental and phosphate projects.

However, nearby homeowners weren’t first notified by Mosaic or DEP until Sept. 19, after news of the sinkhole broke the previous week. Only then did Mosaic begin providing them with bottled water.

Meantime, the company is advising people not to drink their well water, said Courtney Tinsley, 38, who lives in the rural community of Lithia, less than 2 miles from the plant.

“I said ‘If we can’t drink it, we shouldn’t be bathing in it too,'” she said. “I have a 4 and 13-year-old, and I do have a concern every time I give them a bath.”

DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller on Thursday did not address why the agency took so long to notify the public, but said the safety of Floridians and the environment are a top priority. The agency so far has refused to make water testing data and other public records available to The Associated Press.

Mosaic said partial results were released to some residents Tuesday, and the labs are working as fast as they can. Mosaic hired a private contractor for its testing. The DEP, meanwhile, is separately taking and testing samples from private wells.

The waste created at Mosaic’s New Wales plant contains phosphogypsum, a fertilizer byproduct that contains minute traces of radiation.

Mosaic stacks it in hill-size piles that can be hundreds of feet tall and visible from space. Because it is radioactive, the material can’t be reused, but the wastewater involved is stored in ponds atop the piles.

That water has since flowed down into an aquifer that stretches beneath Florida and southern Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Most of the pond water had emptied through the hole by the time the governor toured the site Tuesday, Mosaic also acknowledged it doesn’t really know how deep the hole has grown between the huge radioactive waste pile and the vast aquifer below.

Barron, the Mosaic spokeswoman, said the company believes it’s 300 feet deep, but doesn’t yet know for sure.

Mosaic understands neighbors want peace of mind, she said.

“We appreciate how people feel at this point — that’s why testing and bottled water continues,” Barrron said.

But criticism has been mounting over how long it took to notify the public about potentially radioactive material in the area’s water supply.

“The EPA, the DEP, Gov. Rick Scott, where are they?” said Paula Largel, a nursing home worker who lives about 14 miles from the hole, in the nearby town of Mulberry.

“It makes you wonder how long Mosaic would have sat on it if the news crews hadn’t broken the story,” said Largel.

Tinsley said she first heard about it on the evening news, and called Mosaic for more information. The company didn’t call back for days, she said.

Tinsley and other residents have filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages for possible losses of their private wells and the costs of testing, monitoring, and treatment.

It’s still hurricane season in Florida and heavy rains could wash more contaminated waste down the hole.

“Any storm is going to add water to the mix, and that water will continue to flow through that sinkhole until we plug it,” Barron said.

She said the company is adding five more monitoring wells so it can better track any more movement of the contamination.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Charlie Crist aims low for political comeback, running for U.S. House

He’s been Florida’s Republican governor, was considered a potential vice presidential candidate and almost became a U.S. Senator. But Charlie Crist is aiming a bit lower for his political comeback in 2016, running for the U.S. House after switching his party to Democrat.

The always smiling, always suntanned Crist is running against U.S. Rep. David Jolly in a redrawn district including his hometown of St. Petersburg, following a redistricting process widely seen as eroding advantages of incumbents and possibly allowing Democrats to gain a few seats.

He will be unopposed in the Democratic primary Aug. 30. But the two Republicans competing for their party’s nomination on the same day feel the former governor’s complicated political past will make him vulnerable. Crist — who once called himself a Reagan Republican — now gives opening speeches for Hillary Clinton when she campaigns in town.

At least one political expert says the district is Crist’s to lose — but then again, he’s been up in polls before, and lost.

“He’s got universal name recognition and most people who meet him, like him a great deal. He’s got as great political skills as any candidate in the state of Florida,” said Darryl Paulson, an emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida.

Crist, 60, never seems to forget a name or fail to shout “I love you back” when a supporter expresses admiration.

“His downside is his political ambition. He has seldom held a job that he’s run for a second time. He’s developed an image for someone who is always looking for the next position,” Paulson said.

Crist, an attorney who was Florida’s governor from 2007 to 2011, was cited as a possible VP pick for John McCain in 2008. He ran for Senate as a Republican in 2010 but lost to Marco Rubio in the primary. Crist then switched parties, ran in the general as an independent and lost. He then switched parties again, becoming a Democrat, and ran unsuccessfully for governor against Rick Scott in 2014.

Jolly, 43, who has been in office only two years, earlier had announced he would run for U.S. Senate. But when Marco Rubio dropped out of the presidential race and said he would run for re-election, Jolly got out of the race.

First, Jolly must defeat a challenger in the Republican primary. His race against Mark Bircher is something of a microcosm for Republican races around the country: Jolly is among the incumbents who are uneasy, or unwilling, to endorse the controversial top-of-the-ticket candidate, Donald Trump.

Jolly isn’t supporting Trump. But Bircher, a retired Marine Corps Reserve brigadier general, commercial pilot and lawyer, favors the New York Republican.

Jolly says his biggest accomplishments are taking on campaign finance reform and backing a bill that would prohibit members of Congress from directly soliciting campaign contributions. He also knows his views on Trump are setting him apart.

“It is obvious we are a divided party. Anybody who says otherwise is disingenuous,” he said. “Party matters a little bit less than community does. I have not endorsed Trump, nor do I defend him. He is not somebody that I am supporting.”

Bircher, 63, spent most his life outside of the political realm. He first ran for office in 2014. He came in third in the primary, receiving 25.5 percent of the vote in the election Jolly won.

He says Jolly hasn’t been conservative enough, citing Jolly’s votes for immigration amnesty, the Affordable Care Act and his bill to prohibit people on the FBI’s watch list from buying a firearm in the United States.

Bircher says he will donate his net salary to Pinellas County charities if elected.

He endorsed Trump in the summer, writing in a statement that he welcomed “the change he has brought to the political process run by the establishment.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Florida officials go into damage-control mode over Zika

Thank goodness it’s the slow season in Florida.

At least that’s what officials and representatives of the state’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry are thinking in the wake of the news that 16 people have been infected with Zika in a small, trendy neighborhood in Miami.

The outbreak has sent another chill through the Sunshine State’s all-important tourism industry just weeks after the Orlando nightclub massacre and the killing of a 2-year-old boy by an alligator at nearby Walt Disney World.

Florida officials have gone into damage-control mode, with Gov. Rick Scott insisting, “We have a safe state!” during a tour of the Zika hot zone in Miami’s Wynwood district.

Tourism is Florida’s biggest industry. Visitors spent some $89 billion here last year. And Disney is America’s No. 1 tourist attraction.

Outside of a few business owners in the affected square-mile neighborhood, however, Zika appears to have done little damage to tourism so far.

“We have not had anyone cancel a trip to Florida because of Zika,” said Jenny Cagle, vice president of Elm Grove Travel in Wisconsin. “It’s definitely a conversation. People are talking about it.”

Demetra Prattas, vice president of Turon Travel, a New York-based company that books art tours and trips, including the annual Art Basel festival that includes events in Wynwood, said: “I don’t think it’s a factor in deciding where to go. We’ve had no cancellations.”

The governor has been on something of a statewide Zika tour, meeting with county health officials and business owners in Miami and along the Interstate 4 corridor that runs through Orlando. He said tourists should use caution and not worry about mosquitoes, adding that Florida knows how to prepare for crises because of its hurricanes.

“We will make sure all the tourists feel comfortable coming to Florida,” he said Thursday in Wynwood, site of the first mosquito-transmitted cases of Zika on record in the continental U.S. “We’ve got to continue to support these businesses because, why? They have employees and those employees need their jobs.”

He said the state is doing everything it can to test people, spray against mosquitoes, get rid of the standing water in which they breed, and encourage people to use insect repellent.

The Visit Orlando tourism board issued a statement noting that no locally acquired cases of Zika have been reported in the Orlando area, which is over 200 miles from Miami. The board gave assurances that “safety is the top priority for our region.”

The next few months will be crucial, said Henry Harteveldt, founder of the San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group, a travel-industry watcher.

“If Florida is able to address this efficiently and quickly and be able to pronounce with confidence that they’ve been able to eradicate, there won’t be long-term consequences,” he said. “If Zika remains a long-term challenge, it’s possible some potential tourists might think twice.”

Federal health officials have warned pregnant women to avoid Wynwood because the virus can cause severe birth defects, including stunted heads. England’s public health agency is advising mothers-to-be to postpone non-essential trips to Florida.

U.S. experts say expectant mothers planning a visit to the state should consult with their doctor.

For the most part, theme park visitors should be fine, said North Carolina State University entomologist Michael Reiskind, because the mosquito species most likely to spread the disease is less prevalent in Orlando and the theme parks are likely to spend heavily on insect control.

Kathy Torian, a spokeswoman for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism arm, said anecdotally there were minimal cancellations in the wake of the Orlando shootings and the Disney alligator attack.

In 2015, 106.3 million people visited Florida, a record number.

Some tourists are shrugging off the dangers.

“I feel very safe in Orlando. The recent tragedies and even the Zika concerns have not deterred me in any way from enjoying my vacation,” said a vacationing Tam Fuller, of Atlanta. “I keep my kids close to me at all times and stay aware of my surroundings, so I never feel unsafe.”

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