How Green Is Too Green?

Bulldozers. Pesticides. Fertilizers. If you live in South Florida, golf's threat to the ecosystem might get you teed off.

The folks at the Golf Course of Miami are particularly sensitive to this issue: The only documented local fish-kill in recent memory that was positively tied to golf-course maintenance occurred at the club.

It happened between July 7 and 8, 1993 (before Grey and the current management took over the operation). The course's lakes and ponds were clogged with thousands of deceased large-mouth and peacock bass, mullet, and shad, some with their eyes bulging from their sockets. An investigation by county scientists determined that the fish had died after heavy overnight rains washed pesticides from the course into the water. The assassin chemical was Nemacure, which is used to kill worms that feed on grass roots. According to the investigators, golf course workers had legally applied the pesticide the day before but had not counted on rain.

Judith Nothdurft, manager of agricultural waste programs at Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), says several other fish-kills reported on or near golf courses haven't been conclusively tied to pesticide use on the courses themselves. They took place in November 1994, when about 1000 fish -- bass and bream -- died in a lake at the Presidential Country Club in North Miami Beach; in April 1995, when 150 tilapia were found floating in one of the five lakes at the Briar Bay Golf Course in southwest Dade; and in August 1995, when DERM investigators observed fish-kills in three separate lakes at the Costa Del Sol Golf Course in northwest Dade, including 300 sunfish in one lake alone.

In a more recent investigation, DERM scientists discovered elevated levels of arsenic (a metal found in a commonly used golf course herbicide) in the soil and groundwater at Bayshore Golf Course, a city-owned facility in Miami Beach. According to DERM records, one sample contained nearly five times the federally permitted level of the chemical. "Due to the levels, it's assumed the arsenic is due to pesticide application," Nothdurft says. This past December DERM referred the case to state environmental regulators for further investigation.

DERM issues a so-called agricultural-waste operating permit to all local golf courses in order to regulate maintenance and chemical storage; officials conduct annual inspections to ensure compliance. But Nothdurft says inspectors don't routinely sample the surface and ground waters on the course; in most cases, only a visible red flag (such as a spill, or dead wildlife) will prompt sampling. Growing concern, however, has prompted DERM, in conjunction with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, to conduct a study that will measure the migration of pesticides and fertilizers through golf course turf and soil, and the chemicals' impact on groundwater. Scheduled to begin within the next month, the study involves the sinking of monitoring wells on five local courses.

While the project will be the first of its kind for Dade's unique hydrological system, there's no dearth of tests and experiments from elsewhere in the nation, which industry boosters and environmentalists alike haul around with them like bags of clubs. "Golf courses are green graveyards," declares David Dilworth, an environmental activist in Carmel, California, and one of the most vocal opponents of golf courses. In their effort to quantify the industry's overreliance on chemicals, Dilworth and his allies are quick to cite a 1991 study conducted by the New York Attorney General's Office that examined pesticide use on Long Island courses: Investigators found that on a per-acre basis the courses deployed as much as seven times the amount of pesticides used by the agriculture industry.

Environmentalists also point to a recent study funded by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, which found a high rate of cancer among supers. Researchers from the University of Iowa studied the mortality records of 618 superintendents who died between 1970 and 1992 and saw elevated incidences of cancer of the lung, brain, large intestine, and prostate, as well as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. (Contends Jeff Bollig, spokesman for the superintendents association: "I'm not going to say the study was flawed, but it was limited. It didn't take into account a lot of variables, such as whether you were an alcoholic or whether you smoked or whether your family had a high cancer rate.")

In response to the charges that their courses are awash in liquid death, golf spokesmen point to their own research. The United States Golf Association (USGA), the sport's largest U.S. organization, trumpets its $12.5 million worth of funding for 98 studies at 33 universities. This science, the association claims, demonstrates that where fertilizers and pesticides are properly selected and applied, the environmental impact is minimal or nil.

For months Melreese Golf Course has looked like the stage set for a Lawrence of Arabia remake: a vast expanse of rolling white sand dunes. Less than a year ago the 137-acre plot was a relatively flat eighteen-hole greenscape. During the past year, though, as part of a $3.9 million redesign undertaken to improve the course, workers killed the old grass, ripped out scores of trees, and reconfigured the water hazards. Having carted in 150,000 tons of sandy topsoil and shoved it around with bulldozers to form the current desertscape, workers recently began cultivating a lush blanket of Bermuda grass.

"Essentially it's a completely different golf course than before," boasts James Mahannah, vice president of Mark Mahannah Company, the architectural firm that redesigned the City of Miami-owned facility. "You'll get out there," he promises, "and you won't know you're in South Florida."

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