As she sits dying at home, under the care of Hospice of St. Francis, Jill Phelps stands by her choice to stay in her house even after suspecting years ago that it was slowly killing her.
Phelps has withered from size 12 jeans, to size 4. They fit so loosely she uses a rope to hold them up. Her infectious smile defies her haggard 95-pound frame, echoing the resolve that sustained her as a reluctant activist who 30 years ago took on the U.S. Air Force to bring down a Cold War-era radar dome near her neighborhood.
She fought hard to remove the dreaded radar station at Patrick Air Force Base that had stirred so many neighborhood health fears. When the radar fell in the mid 1990s, she thought the risk to her and her family went with it.
But the story of this quiet, small beach town’s health woes didn’t end with the radar’s removal.
Now that Phelps is dying, she believes it was only one piece of the puzzle contributing to health risks in the area. The others, she says, are the military munitions, chemicals, airplanes and other World War II junk buried beneath her tropical island paradise.
Science can’t — or won’t — prove she’s right, for sure. But Jill Phelps is convinced what the military dumped underground is partly to blame for why she’s wasting away.
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“It wasn’t just solely the radar,” Phelps says.
There were other pathways of exposure to whatever chemicals might have seeped into the lagoon from the ground, canals, ponds and ditches of Patrick Air Force Base and its nearby dump sites.
Like many families in South Patrick Shores, Jill’s family used private wells to sprinkle laws when she was growing up.
“When we were kids, we played in that water,” she said.
“I ate a lot of fish off that river,” she recalls of growing up here in the 1970s.
Doctors aren’t exactly sure what’s killing her. For unknown reasons, her own immune system is eating away at her nerves. Myelin, the insulating sheath layer on her nerves, is vanishing.
Her doctors speak hesitantly, she says, of something called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP). CIDP is characterized by a progressive weakening and impaired sensory function in the arms and legs. She describes her symptoms as resembling a mix of multiple sclerosis (MS), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and cancer.
But even now, if she were able to turn back the clock she would still choose South Patrick Shores.
“No, I’m not leaving my home,” Phelps said. “I made it to 60; that’s a long-enough life.” She would rather die here at 60, she says, than in some “snow-drift” state and live another decade or more.
A sense of safety slowly erodes
Her father, William Barton, brought her family to Brevard County in 1966 as the Space Race accelerated with better opportunity than in small-town Pennsylvania. As a little girl, she peddled her bicycle to remote South Patrick Shores beaches with no motels, just endless dunes, a place where she felt safe.
But her sense of safety would slowly erode after she became a mother and began hearing more about rare illnesses near the base, the nearby radar station, and all the odd military waste dug up in yards.
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She decided to join the battle, which soon grew beyond just the radar station. As they learned more, she and her husband, Lee, 65, also would push hard — to no avail — for a federal cleanup of military waste buried before, during and after World War II.
It wasn’t easy or without risk. Some neighbors worried about the impact to their property values, and Lee worked at the base. But they chose to stick their necks out for what they thought was right.
Today, Phelps is proud that the battle she embraced three decades ago lives on in a younger generation of activists taking up the mantle. Others newer to the fight look to her and her husband for inspiration, encouragement and the lessons learned going up against the slow-moving but powerful wheels of government.
“Jill and Lee are heroes to me for their work in the ’90s,” said Sandra Sullivan, who’s among those in South Patrick Shores who’ve taken up the torch of local environmental activism the couple helped ignite 30 years ago.
The reluctant activist
Like many in the modern battle to clean up military dump sites south of the base, Jill Phelps never set out to become an activist.
In the late 1980s, she began to hear of rare illnesses in South Patrick Shores, including a dozen or more cases of Hodgkin’s disease, a rare cancer of the lymphatic system. The more she looked, the more odd cases had popped up: other rare cancers, MS and ALS. The diseases appeared to cluster along the streets she knew so well. Neighbors kept dying.
Then in 1989, when her daughter, Autumn, then age 4, got swollen lymph nodes in her neck, Jill Phelps got worried. Autumn would be OK, but Phelps’ worry never really went away.
“We thought being zapped by the radar was what was harming people,” she said.
The static interruptions in their living room and car were a constant, unsettling reminder.
The radar would cause static pulses over car radios as motorists crossed the Pineda Causeway.
“It came through the stereo system,” Jill Phelps recalls.
No one knew the health risks of long-term exposure to electromagnetic radiation from radar stations.
Many feared the worst.
In 1993, worry turned to action. Jill Phelps drew up a petition demanding the U.S. Air Force close the radar facility. She went door-to-door after dinner, bringing Autumn, then 8 years old, with her. They did one street a day, collecting some 200 signatures.
“They’re jacking us around, just like they do on every other issue,” Phelps, then 34, told FLORIDA TODAY at the time.
There were always delays.
“I am beginning to wonder if it is ever going to happen,” Jill Phelps told FLORIDA TODAY two years after beginning her petition drive.
A private archive helps rekindle a new drive
The radar station eventually came down, but the fears lingered.
Lee and Jill Phelps saved a ragged old white plastic bag and manila envelop containing piles of old state and federal documents from the 1990s health investigation, their notes, and FLORIDA TODAY clips, including their numerous letters to the editor. Something told them they might one day need these documents again.
Sullivan points to their two-inch-thick stack of reports, documents and newspaper clippings as being critical to her own research into the issue and in helping to quickly reignite and streamline the military reconsidering the area for eligibility for federal environmental cleanup.
Some documents included the original ground water tests and a 1991 state environmental report with a key passage that caught Sullivan and others’ eyes. It mentioned a military dump site in South Patrick Shores with a shocking litany of waste, including discarded machine gun belts with ammunition, a bomber, Jeeps, oil drums and airplane parts.
But in 1992, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that neither the radar station nor the military waste were causing an outbreak of Hodgkin’s, ALS and other rare diseases in the South Patrick area.
Residents sensed a whitewash. People kept getting sick and dying of the same rare diseases.
Then, 30 years later, came a doctor — Dr. Julie Greenwalt, a Jacksonville oncologist, cancer survivor and Satellite High School grad.
In 2018, Greenwalt began noticing what seemed like an unusual number of her fellow SHS grads were getting cancer, many before the age of 40. She herself, in her early 30s, had survived a rare cancer of the appendix. She compiled a list that quickly grew to more than 40 cases. Eventually, activists gathered hundreds more cancer cases near the base, spanning decades. Greenwalt’s and others’ efforts resulted in environmental activist Erin Brockovich holding a community meeting in Satellite Beach in September 2018.
Among Brockovich’s early phone chats with locals who helped convince her to get involved was Lee Phelps. He would walk her and her water consultant through the history of the dump sites, his and Jill’s research and past efforts trying to get the military to clean it all up.
“They definitely turned out to be valuable,” Lee Phelps said of the documents he and Jill held on to for all these years. “We’re very organized.”
After prodding from Dr. Greenwalt, the Florida Department of Health agreed to take another look at whether disease is clustering in the area. In May, the department released its long-awaited report showing some elevated cancer rates in South Patrick Shores. But more investigation would be needed to prove what’s causing the cancers, the report said, and the investigation fell short of confirming a cancer “cluster.”
The report did not examine neurological diseases such as Jill’s.
Then in August, the Corps reversed its previous decades-old position and deemed a 32-acre site southeast of Patrick as eligible for its cleanup program.
“I wouldn’t be dying if they had admitted it back then,” Jill Phelps said. “Maybe back then there would have been some hope for people like me.”
“The damage is done,” she said. “The contaminants have ruined the land, ruined the water table. Man did this to themselves, with greed and stupidity.”
She wants just compensation from the federal government for her family and for those directly impacted by what the military buried — in more ways than one.
“The United States government owes me, I think for taking my life, and for taking my father’s life at 56,” Jill Phelps said. “They ought to hand me a check, or hand my family a check. I want to be compensated. They didn’t know they were doing wrong, but they were negligent.”
She often wonders what exactly they did know at the time, and about what they know now and might be burying yet again.
But if she could go back, she’d make the same choice. So would Lee. They’ve always chosen home over more time.
This story originally published to floridatoday.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.
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