For more than a year, concerned families have been looking for answers about a disturbing trend of pediatric tumors and cancers around the Acreage, an unincorporated area between West Palm and Lake Okeechobee.
Early this year, the Palm Beach County Health Department confirmed that a "cancer cluster" did exist -- but a couple of weeks ago, it wrapped up a study into its causes without finding anything conclusive.
That's not enough for some of the families, who banded together and contacted Erin Brockovich about the possibility that environmental toxins were to blame. A law firm associated with Brockovitch, Weitz and Luxenberg in New York took up the case and launched its own study, which is still under way.
The families referred the Juice's questions to attorney Lem Srolovic, who spoke about the search for answers, possible litigation, and a growing rift among the residents.
In Florida's wild-west governmental patchwork, the Acreage is represented by the "Indian Trails Improvement District" rather than a municipality. The improvement district convened a set of focus groups from those families that were not involved in the state's investigation.
The focus groups were convened to act as a liaison between the families and the government, says Srolovic, speaking from his New York office. "As the health department and the DEP were implementing their investigations, the thought was, 'Should we convene a local group to interact with the agencies conducting the studies?'" he explains.
The focus group discussions quickly got emotional. "The focus groups spent quite a lot of time on whether the coding of the brain tumors in fact reflected malignant cancer or not," says Srolovic.
Eventually, he says, some of the families wanted the focus groups to disband while others -- especially those with affected kids -- thought they hadn't learned enough. "The groups were riven with a certain amount of strife and animosty," says Srolovic. "Ultimately, the groups collapsed, in about September of this year." Despite the rift, Srolovic says he's "never heard of any impacted families who said 'I've heard enough.'"
So the firm is still digging for clues on behalf of its clients. Srolovic hasn't brought a lawsuit against anyone yet, but the possibility lingers. "Given the continued high rates of illnesses in children [in the Acreage], it seems to me to be likely that there's some type of environmental factor in play," Srolovic says, choosing his words carefully.
As for the state's involvement? "We advised the state and the CDC to examine air and the surface water canals that riddle the community," says Srolovic. "They did not respond substantively."