By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Separated by a scant two miles, the sites are linked by a drainage canal that has become the focus of a controversy involving the park, the U.S. Air Force, Metro-Dade County, the State of Florida, and local environmental groups. All parties seem to agree about one issue: The water in the canal isn't as pure as Evian. After that, just about everything is in dispute, including the volume and type of pollution in the canal, where it came from, and who's going to clean it up. Even the waterway's name is contested. Most people call it the Military Canal, as it's been known for decades; the name is even chiseled on a stone bridge across the waterway. But these days air force authorities demur, insisting upon calling it the Outfall Canal.
By the end of next year, the federal government expects to turn over nearly two thirds of the 2900-acre air base to Dade County for redevelopment as a civilian enterprise, which will include a commercial airport, industrial parks, a shopping center, an apartment complex, and a golf course. In preparation, the air force is in the midst of a massive pollution cleanup; Homestead is one of 26 air force facilities that are getting scrubbed down as part of a nationwide base-conversion program, with the air force's handling of this particular location receiving special scrutiny. The site, which is expected to cost about $25 million to clean, has been designated a "model base" by the U.S. Department of Defense, says Humberto Rivero, environmental coordinator for the Air Force Base Conversion Agency. For the most part, according to local environmental regulators, the process is moving along swiftly and thoroughly.
Unfortunately, the amicability stops at the banks of the Military Canal.
Essentially a glorified drainage ditch, the waterway was dug in the first half of the century as part of Dade's flood-control canal system, and was intended to keep the base dry during heavy storms. Rain falling on the base drains into a channel, known as the Boundary Canal, which encircles the site. The Boundary Canal, in turn, empties into the Military Canal -- which flows straight into Biscayne Bay.
State and Metro environmental officials have long suspected that something more than storm water is draining into the Military Canal from the base. Over the past several years, Metro-Dade scientists have conducted water-quality and sediment tests in the canal, revealing suspiciously elevated levels of pollution, including trace metals such as cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and zinc. These metals, if they enter the food chain in high enough concentrations, can have a harmful effect on the natural ecosystem and human health. According to officials at Metro's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), the level of contaminants increases upstream, toward the base.
In an internal memo earlier this month, the chief of DERM's natural resources division noted that the Military Canal's pollutant levels were more like those found in canals located in North Dade's industrialized areas than what turns up in other canals in South Dade's agricultural areas. "It is likely the base is among the sources of the contaminants observed in the sediments," wrote division chief Susan Markley. As a caveat, she added that DERM's routine testing techniques aren't designed to determine specific sources of contamination but are only to detect contaminant levels.
Air force officials bristle at the slightest suspicion that the base is polluting the surrounding waters. In fact, they won't even acknowledge that the canal is, technically speaking, contaminated. "The presence of chemicals doesn't automatically mean 'contamination,'" asserts Rivero, who is coordinating the cleanup. According to the air force's definition, Rivero explains, 'contamination' means the presence of chemicals "that pose a risk to human health and the environment." This, he points out, is not the case in the Military Canal.
The air force has done its own sampling in the Boundary and Military canals A more than a million dollars' worth of tests, according to Rivero. While the tests revealed a link between pollutants in the perimeter canal and the air force base, they showed no connection between the Military Canal contamination and the base. Tests conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this past spring, Rivero adds, confirmed the air force's findings. Thus, air force officials have agreed to eliminate the pollution from the Boundary Canal but refuse to do any further work on the Military Canal. Rivero says that if the Military Canal is sullied, the pollution was caused by runoff from surrounding farmland, or by the actions of illegal waste dumpers unloading automobiles, tires, and pesticides into the gully.
Scientists and engineers from DERM and the South Florida Water Management District don't fully trust the air force's conclusions. They fault the testers' methodology, specifically their control site and the limited number of samples taken. They say there's a need for more accurate testing, and they want the air force to do it. "We say that impurities exist in the system significantly above natural levels," explains Rick Alleman, senior environmental scientist for the water management district. "Now, whether that presents a threat to biota or human health, I would say that possibility exists. But we don't have sufficient data to say one way or the other, and that continues to be the issue."