They Saw Red

The Dade Grand Jury scrutinizes the county's environmental attitude, and the verdict isn't very verdant

Twice each year the Dade County Grand Jury releases its report in much the same way as a sailor would cast overboard a message in a bottle, albeit with a little more fanfare. While the jury's primary function is to review prosecutable offenses (in particular first-degree murder cases) and decide whether to indict, the group of eighteen randomly chosen citizens also selects a few troubling topics to investigate during each six-month term, from public housing to homelessness to youth gangs.

This past week the grand jury produced its latest report, most of which is devoted to a resounding indictment of Dade's criminal justice system. And it was on this controversial subject that the South Florida media jumped with the expected degree of concern and outrage.

Tucked at the end of the report, however, is an assessment of a less sexy but arguably more insidious problem: chronic and large-scale environmental neglect by Metro-Dade governmental agencies. The grand jury observes that even though the county's environmental wing, the Metro-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management, seems dedicated to its duty of enforcing state and local environmental law, it is hamstrung by its inability to take legal action against other Dade County agencies. DERM can only act through Dade County and Dade County can't sue itself. The job of pursuing Metro's environmental wrongdoers in the courts is left to state regulators at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). But as the grand jury points out, that agency is too understaffed and underfunded to provide adequate local enforcement.

"This leaves DERM in the ineffectual position of demanding action and relying upon the good graces of the directors and management of the offending agency for compliance," the grand jury writes; it is a system that has allowed Metro to delay correction of environmental violations or, worse, to blatantly ignore the law. The report singles out several agencies that have displayed this pattern of inaction including:

* The Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, which tangled with DERM for several years over ways to solve the problem of the rapidly decaying cross-bay sewage pipeline.

* The Metro-Dade Aviation Department, which has been slow to correct chronic soil and ground-water contamination beneath Miami International Airport.

* The Metro-Dade Transit Agency, which tolerated twenty years of hydrocarbon contamination at its Central Bus Maintenance Facility just east of the airport before it began to take "effective action to solve this environmental problem" a year ago.

* The Metro-Dade Department of Solid Waste Management, which according to the report has not adequately addressed the contamination problems at the South Dade Landfill and the agency's Central Transfer Station in Miami, both of which threaten bodies of water, including Biscayne Bay.

"With some notable exceptions," the grand jury adds, "the efforts now under way to correct these problems are not the result of a sudden sensitivity to our environmental needs but are the result of lawsuits, threats of fines, and public outrage."

The grand jury warns that while Dade's economic well-being depends on the sanctity of its natural environment, the environment has taken a back seat to the area's infrastructural growth. "We are now, finally, having to confront the true costs of a history of environmental neglect," the report reads. "The lessons of our past are clear. When problems that threaten our environment are discovered, they must be swiftly and appropriately remedied. To do otherwise would be to abandon some of the most attractive and beautiful qualities of life in Dade County, the qualities which we, as Dade County residents, enjoy, and the qualities which make tourists regularly visit our shores."

The report concludes with a list of detailed recommendations. Among them:
* The selection of a county ombudsman to investigate governmental inaction regarding environmental matters.

* The removal of DERM from under the Dade County manager and its placement under an elected autonomous environmental board, akin to the Dade County School Board.

* An annual written environmental audit of local government agencies.
* The increase of the state DEP's staffing in Dade County.
* The implementation of an environmental training program for all Metro-Dade employees whose jobs have the potential to contaminate the environment.

Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss, chair of the commission's Physical Land Use and Environment Committee, is circumspect about the grand jury's specific recommendations but vows to make the report a matter of discussion immediately. "I'm hoping that we become more proactive so that we don't find ourselves behind the eight ball where other governmental entities have to step in and sue us to get us off the dime," says Moss.

Commission Chairman Art Teele says he is impressed with some of the grand jury's recommendations, particularly the idea of an ombudsman and an environmental board. "We clearly have to break through this perception A and perhaps the reality A that we aren't proactive enough," Teele asserts. "We can do this by instituting some of these recommendations. If we fail to do that, we invite the federal government and the state to come in and institute their own plans, like desegregation. When you keep walking away from things of concern to federal and state interests, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that you're inviting greater oversight.

 
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