Goo Grief

There's a million cubic yards of toxic sludge on the bottom of the Miami River and you may as well get used to it

As most Miamians know, the river itself is largely barren of aquatic life, in part because of the pollution, but also because the water has little dissolved oxygen and because the opening and closing of the salinity dam (in times of high rainfall, the gate is opened to allow water to drain out of upland areas) causes wide fluctuations in salt content. "Sometimes there are a few fish, but not much diversity," comments Markley, who is chief of the natural resources division of Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM). "There aren't many creatures that can tolerate those sorts of extremes." Still, the river continues to attract manatees, and during winter months the mammals frequently wander upstream in odd juxtaposition to human industrial labors.

One million cubic yards. That's the volume of sediment that engineers say has amassed on the riverbed. Piled atop a football field, the resulting cake would soar nearly 40 stories into the sky. It's more than enough to fill the NationsBank Tower.

Daunting, to say the least. And come time to describe it -- really describe it -- the nomenclature of science falls by the wayside. "Uh, it's mucky material," ventures Jerry Scarborough, the Army Corps project manager for the Miami River. Offers Lundy Clarke, a member of the Miami River Coordinating Committee, a coalition of public and private interests: "It's very fine dirt, nasty dirt!"

The sediments also have some extra-crunchy surprises. This past year the City of Miami Public Works Department dredged a portion of Wagner Creek, a river tributary that runs out to Allapattah. James Kay, the department's deputy director, recites an inventory of the debris his workmen pulled out of the canal: "Shopping carts, furniture, appliances, construction debris of all kinds! Couches, mattresses, bedsprings, refrigerators." He predicts the same variety of goodies is buried in the river's sediments. Plus, he adds, "You might find one or two cars."

There's nothing environmentally improper about dredging contaminated sediments -- it's legal and it happens all the time. In fact, shipping-terminal operators along the river have, at various times, received permission to spot-dredge around their businesses and to dispose of the material at landfills, all in accordance with environmental laws. It's the enormous volume of the stuff filling the 5.5-mile navigable length of the Miami River that causes nightmares. "Cost becomes the barrier," explains DERM's Susan Markley.

The most efficient way to eliminate the problem would be to dig the sediments off the bottom using so-called clamshell dredges -- essentially extra-large buckets that scoop a VW Bug's-worth at a time -- deposit the material on barges, drag it out to sea, and dump it. Cost: between $20 million and $25 million, to be paid primarily by the federal government, according to the Corps' Jerry Scarborough. Problem is, the sediments' toxicity would violate the EPA's open-ocean-dumping regulations.

The EPA could grant a waiver, and for months Corps officials have asked for the criteria by which the agency would evaluate such a request. But in a Catch-22 of sorts, the EPA has refused to delineate the terms of the review until the request is submitted. This impasse has caused no small amount of tension between the agencies, and has driven at least one bureaucrat to violence: During an argument at an interagency meeting this past October, an engineer from the Corps leaped out of his seat, announced that he was fed up with the "bullshit," and threw his pencil in the general direction of an EPA section chief who was sitting across the table. As the rest of the group watched in embarrassed silence, the projectile hit the table and rolled off.

In any event, it appears unlikely that the Corps will request a waiver, or that the EPA would grant one. "It would be the first time that anyone was knowingly placing known toxic materials in the ocean, and it's our belief that would cause a major outcry," says Howard. "We would have major environmental organizations around the world looking very closely at this particular project. It's a precedent that the EPA is not interested in pursuing." In other words, a waiver would engender legal challenges and questions of environmental ethics that would tie up the dredging project for years.

Adds Jerry Scarborough of the Army Corps: "The Corps of Engineers is not prepared to seek a waiver."

Among the other options under review, federal officials have considered putting the dredged sediments in polypropylene-and-polyester bags and dropping them in the ocean. But these loaded sacks -- or "burritos," as Corps district commander Col. Terry Rice calls them -- have not always been successful in experiments using noncontaminated fill: During a small demonstration project this past year, two out of three bags burst during deployment. But that's the least of the Corps' concerns. "We have not abandoned that idea completely," clarifies Scarborough. "But it's looking very, very doubtful as a viable alternative, because the EPA is still looking at it as contaminated material even if it's in the bag. The EPA won't accept that."

In light of the waiver stalemate, the Corps has also evaluated the possibility of on-land disposal, which would involve hauling dredged sediment, either by barge or truck, to an area large enough to spread out the million cubic yards for drying, like a colossal cow chip. The material would then be either left in place or carted to a landfill. The Corps' first choice was a site on Virginia Key, which offered two advantages: It was already publicly owned and thus wouldn't require purchasing; and it was accessible by barge, an easier method of transportation since carting by road would require approximately 56,000 dumptrucks, a convoy that would stretch from Miami to Key West.

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