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Northwest Florida congressman Matt Gaetz on Thursday visited Pensacola’s American Creosote Works property, an environmentally-contaminated site that’s been under remediation by state and federal environmental officials for more than three decades.

Standing in the middle of Pine Street — the unpaved, rarely-traveled city street that runs along the property’s southern edge — the freshman Republican took questions for more than an hour from the several dozen residents who braved the midday sun to attend.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks with residents at the American Creosote Works Superfund site in Pensacola. (Derek Cosson/The Pulse)

The visit comes after Gaetz in February introduced H.R. 861, a bill that would abolish the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has overseen the cleanup at the site since 1983. The ACW site is one of four active Superfund sites in Escambia County; three others have been remediated and removed from the EPA’s National Priorities List.

Behind Gaetz, his staff had set up signs on easels which sought to reinforce his argument that the EPA is bloated and inefficient. “On the Superfund list for 34 years,” one sign read. “Will it ever be completed?”

Located in Pensacola’s Sanders Beach neighborhood just a few hundred yards from Pensacola Bay, the 18-acre ACW site operated as a wood-treating facility from 1902 through 1981. After treating lumber with creosote and later pentachlorophenol, the plant dumped toxic wastewater into unlined ponds on the site, as well as into the bay via two ditches.

Amid confusion over ownership of the site and disagreements between state and federal officials, remediation efforts have dragged on for more than three decades, though cleanup activities have increased in recent years. Last summer, the EPA completed cleanup of a contaminated ditch which runs from the site to Pensacola Bay through the Pensacola Yacht Club’s property. Later this year, officials are scheduled to adopt a “Record of Decision,” the formal document which will finalize the last phase of remediation — the installation of a permanent cap on the site. Design work for that final remediation phase is expected to be completed by the end of 2018, with work beginning in 2019.

But Gaetz believes the lengthy delays are evidence of the agency’s ineffectiveness, calling the EPA’s work at the site “34 years of failure” and arguing that individual states rather than the federal government are best-suited to tackle cleanups like the ACW site. Some essential EPA functions could be absorbed by other federal departments, Gaetz has said.

A sign at Pensacola’s former American Creosote Works plant warns against entering the contaminated site. (Derek Cosson/The Pulse)

The vast majority of those in attendance — many of whom sported t-shirts indicating their Democratic Party affiliations — disagreed with Gaetz. Many held signs with slogans like “We need clean air, clean water, save EPA” and “Make America Green Again” — a play on President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. Gaetz was loudly booed when he reiterated his support for abolishing the agency, and members of the crowd frequently interrupted his answers by booing and shouting.

While most of the questions focused on the EPA and other environmental issues, Gaetz also discussed entitlement programs, veterans’ issues, and the release of President Trump’s federal tax returns. Gaetz said he supports raising the retirement age for social security and Medicaid — a position that was again loudly booed — and said that while he believes the president should voluntarily release his tax returns, he would not support legislation to force Trump to do so.

With few cosponsors and no action on Gaetz’s EPA bill in more than two months, it’s unlikely the bill will ever see a floor vote. Meanwhile, EPA officials have scheduled a public meeting next week to discuss the proposed cleanup methods for the final remediation phase at the ACW site. That meeting will be held on Wednesday, April 26 beginning at 6:00 p.m. at the Sanders Beach-Corinne Jones Community Center, located at 913 South I Street.

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