Landscaper’s family sues Lockheed Martin, Universal for ‘toxic waste’ poisoning

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A mishandled cleanup process created new, deadly problems, the lawsuit contends.

Seven days a week, 14 hours a day for nearly a decade, Daniel Vandestreek ran his landscaping business 600 feet directly across from land with a long history of toxic waste, according to court documents.

Vandestreek’s family believes that’s what killed him.

In a lawsuit filed last week in Orange Circuit Court, his family claimed Vandestreek was unknowingly exposed to “highly toxic contaminants and volatile organic compounds” from the Lockheed Martin complex off Sand Lake Road that was once used for missile testing and production.

A mishandled cleanup process created new, deadly problems, the lawsuit contends. The toxins from the groundwater and soil were not destroyed during remediation but instead were converted into gas and went airborne, sickening Vandestreek with an aggressive cancer as he worked outdoors across the road.

Vandestreek, 43, a married father with two daughters and owner of Orlando Outdoors, died April 29, 2020, 18 months after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, the lawsuit said.

Vandestreek’s wife is now suing both Lockheed Martin and Universal, which bought 2,000 acres from the aerospace company in 1998. Spokespeople for the two companies denied the lawsuit’s allegations.

“There is no credible evidence anyone has been harmed or damaged by our Sand Lake Road facility,” Lockheed spokeswoman Brittny Sherlock said in a statement. “Lockheed Martin will vigorously fight this litigation and will never allow it to compromise our longstanding commitment to our local communities.”

It’s the latest civil litigation over environmental issues on the land which is near the biggest theme park expansion happening in Orlando: Universal’s Epic Universe theme park. The new theme park with resorts, shopping, and restaurants will be built on 750 acres south of Sand Lake Road and east of Universal Boulevard. It will become Universal’s largest park in the United States when it opens in the next few years.

“It is our policy to never respond to questions about litigation — but in this case, we must make an exception,” Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said in a statement Tuesday. “This property is safe for use and poses no health, safety or environmental risks. And, the claims of the plaintiff’s lawyers are technically impossible and just not true.”

In a 1998 story when Universal purchased the land, the Orlando Sentinel reported most of the 2,000 acres were not polluted and could be developed while Universal cleaned it up.

Vandestreek ran his turf grass, mulch and plants business at 5001 Sand Lake Road. Located at 5600 Sand Lake Road, Lockheed’s Orlando plant had produced and tested missiles, like the Hellfire, from 1958 until 1996, according to the lawsuit.

By the early ’80s, the first signs of contamination appeared in the groundwater, which sparked attempts to clean the land by 1984, court documents said.

“At the time, contamination stemmed from six closed landfills where molten metals, chemical sludges, solvents, and solid wastes such as construction debris, dummy missiles, grenades, and electroplating sludges were dumped,” the lawsuit said. “Pollution was also found at other sites, including its microelectronics building, launch testing area and hazardous-waste storage area, which involved 21 toxic metals and industrial solvents, including trichloroethylene.”

Trichloroethylene, a chemical typically used as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts, is a known carcinogen and can cause liver damage and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 1998, the giant aerospace company sold more than 2,000 acres in the heart of the tourism corridor to Universal, which was considering making its next big move to compete with Disney World by building a third theme park gate.

“They [Universal) said they want to be very aggressive and clean up everything out there,” Merlin Russell Jr., a geologist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, told the Sentinel at the time.

The Sentinel’s 1998 story said the cleaning process would require digging up the old landfills, removing the hazardous waste and getting rid of the contaminated soil. Russell warned pumping out the contaminated groundwater and cleaning it would be a yearslong process.

But last week’s lawsuit accuses Universal and Lockheed of eventually handling the cleanup process “carelessly and recklessly” by using air stripping towers, soil vapor extraction systems and other equipment that “vented toxic gases directly into the air, at low heights.”

That’s how Vandestreek was exposed to high levels of dangerous chemicals “directly into the air supply,” the lawsuit said.

“The Defendants further increased the risk and amount of exposure by using contaminated groundwater for spray irrigation, causing underground contaminants to make contact with air, vaporize, be carried off-site with winds, and ultimately inhaled by others,” the lawsuit said.

The attorneys representing Vandestreek’s wife, Karyn, did not respond to a message for comment Tuesday.

The lawsuit also names Tampa-based HSW Engineering, which Universal and Lockheed hired to do the remediation work and oversee the treatment, and Universal City Property Management III, which previously owned land in the area.

Vandestreek family’s litigation comes after Morgan & Morgan has filed two similar lawsuits since September on behalf of Orange County homeowners, people who said they had been exposed to contamination and surviving spouses who believed their family member’s death was connected to the Lockheed Martin Sand Lake site.

Gabrielle Russon

Gabrielle Russon is a journalist who covers theme parks and Florida tourism. She previously worked at the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Toledo Blade and the Kalamazoo Gazette. She graduated from Michigan State University.


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