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Dunbar sludge lawsuit against City of Fort Myers tossed out by federal judge

A federal lawsuit against the City of Fort Myers over the damages from Dunbar sludge has been tossed out on Monday afternoon.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs were demanding $500 million for dumping toxic sludge in the Dunbar community. Neighbors claimed the former sludge site made them sick. The sludge caused arsenic levels to rise in the soil near homes in the Dunbar community and it stayed that way for decades. The sludge has since been removed by the city.

The lawsuit filed over the toxic sludge site was brought before the Fort Myers division of the United States District Court Middle District of Florida by Attorney Ralf Brookes. The judge ruled there is no proof of imminent danger to neighbors, in effect dismissing the argument the city was negligent in removing the sludge.

It was disappointing to Brookes, who lists Deretha Miller, Luetricia Freeman Becker, Ralph Henry and Noemy Rodriguez as plaintiffs, individually, and on behalf of over 200 residents of Dunbar against the city.

“You can’t just open-dump this stuff into pits in the ground, especially when you’re in a residential neighborhood,” Brookes said. “They should have never brought the arsenic here and put it in an open dump without a fence, without a liner, without a licensed landfill.”

Beyond the attorney representing his clients, public figures and government agencies expressed their displeasure with the City of Fort Myers. In 2017, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the failure to release results from testing that showed elevated levels of arsenic in groundwater at the site.

But, now that the sludge has been removed by the city, the site of the once toxic dumping ground in Dunbar will soon become a public park. Tests of the area by the city showed arsenic levels in the majority of the soil at the site is lower than the residential standard. But residents said the damage was already done despite the sludge removal.

“We’re done with it now,” Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson said. “And we can move on. This is closure for us. And I think that’s good story.”

For people living along the sludge site, they hoped the judge would rule the area poses an imminent threat to the neighborhood.

“We understand that, yeah, they’ve cleaned it up, per se,” said Tabitha Blanks, a plaintiff of the lawsuit. “But, again, the impact on that, just knowing it was there before the cleanup, that’s what we’re still having to deal with.”

But, after the city removed the sludge, test results showed a majority of the soli no longer poses a threat to people living nearby.

“The science has indicated that there’s nothing in the soil there that has been harmful to citizens,” Henderson said. “It was not a threat to them. We wanted to know that. So we hired experts to give us that detail.”

Community members along with Blanks say the sludge caused sickness, but that was something they were unable to prove. They also worry the new public park coming to the lot might also cause visitors to get sick.

“We just don’t feel like it should be an area where you should go and play and just have family gatherings,’ Blanks said. “It’s just, still, I don’t feel confident that it’s all gone.”

Although the lawsuit was dismissed at the federal level, the plaintiffs can still file a lawsuit at the state level. While many of them said they are ready to move on from the issue, none mentioned if they plan to file it at the state level.

The video below from the City of Fort Myers shows the site becoming a park with big lawns. It shows the entire South Street future site plan zooming in and showing views from multiple sides of the park.

Reporter:Taylor Petras
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