Captain Courageous

Miami's notoriously dirty, crime-ridden river is flowing a little cleaner these days thanks to Coast Guard Capt. Dave Miller

The tide is going out along the coast of South Florida. The water level of the narrow Miami River drops, exposing rotten pilings propping up docks and lichen-covered hulls of ramshackle freighters. Several trading boats pass through the city's system of drawbridges, leave behind the last land, and steer for ports in the faraway reaches of the Caribbean.

Veteran bridge tender Jim Wellington watches from a control booth above the Miami Avenue bridge. For the past 24 years he has seen the problems of the river float toward him. In 1977 it was a murder victim, legs bound, arms cut off, long dead. In the 1980s, when drug cartel violence exploded in Miami, a jettisoned crate of Uzi automatic weapons washed up. He figures the illegal narcotics that have passed beneath him are worth billions. Starting in the 1980s he saw cramped, wooden-hull Haitian boats arriving. When they docked, smuggled immigrants swarmed out like ants. Then there were the spills. For years he would drop a rock into the river to determine the type of fuel passing beneath him. ("If the rock splashes and rings spread out from the middle, it's diesel fuel. If it stays a solid mass, then it's crude oil.")

For decades the Miami River was a waterway reminiscent of the the settings of Joseph Conrad's novels -- subtropical, multilingual, milling with activity, and largely unfettered, with dark subtexts. Grand juries, government study groups, and local residents all decried the dangerous demimonde inhabiting the river, which runs 5.5 miles through the city from Miami International Airport to Biscayne Bay. A 1992 Dade County grand jury report called it "a cesspool" of crime and pollution.

Then in 1995 Wellington and other river denizens watched a new Coast Guard official sail upstream and take over the job of head man on the river. Capt. Dave Miller was a straight-arrow career "Coastie," originally from Maine, who looked like a former high school valedictorian. This new head of the Marine Safety Office seemed as different as possible from the often feisty, salty, blunt-speaking river types. They wrote him off. "They figured he was just another federal agency employee who would make some noise for a while and then disappear," says Fran Bohnsack, spokeswoman for the Miami River Marine Group, an organization that lobbies for nineteen of the most powerful businesses on the river. "In the past the Coast Guard people had simply gone away after a while, or the industry had been able to make them back down."

But Miller, whose title is captain of the port, didn't leave or retreat. No one claims the river water is now drinkable, that its ships are drug-free, or that its banks are safe for a midnight stroll. But it is clear that Miller, who retired from the Coast Guard this month after 24 years, substantially changed the river during the past three years. In one fiscal year alone, 1995-96, the Coast Guard carried out 914 inspections of vessels on the river and wrote 3948 tickets for violations, about five times the previous year's total for each. Miller's crackdown resulted from two federally mandated changes. In 1995 inspectors began holding vessels less than 500 tons, including foreign boats, to the same safety and antipollution standards that applied to large freighters. And on January 1, 1997, the Caribbean Cargo Safety Code took effect, implementing more rules than had been on the books in most Caribbean countries in all the years since Columbus landed. Marine safety was improved and water pollution was decreased.

To achieve these results, Miller had to deal with prickly and powerful personalities, indifference from county agencies, political skullduggery, bitter feuds, hidden agendas, and open hostility. He also had to face the tears of Haitian boat owners forced out of business by his strict enforcement of regulations. Their colorful and often unsafe wooden craft, once a common sight on the river, have all but disappeared.

Miller also had to ameliorate the paranoia that has pervaded the river community, an abiding fear that shifty developers in partnership with bureaucrats want to replace the docks with hotels, restaurants, and pricey condos. As Norman Hempstead, age 41, a tugboat operator whose family has worked on the river 70 years, puts it: "I crawled out of a crib when I was months old and fell in this river. It's been my life. Now people want to plant shrubs all along it. Well, I'll fight for my way of life if I have to."

Despite having been posted around the world, Miller says he had never encountered a situation as politically and ethnically complex as Miami's in 1995. He was raised in the coastal town of Scarborough, Maine, where he dug clams, trapped lobster, and imagined a life on the sea. "Maine is like Kansas," he says. "From the time you're a kid, you dream of escaping from it into the real world." He studied at the Maine Maritime Academy, earned a degree in marine engineering, and received a Coast Guard commission in 1974 as an officer in marine safety and investigations. He served in Honolulu, flying all over the South Pacific, the Far East, Southeast Asia, and India inspecting American commercial vessels. (The Coast Guard regularly checks all American vessels, no matter where they do business.) On those assignments he saw small wooden commercial vessels like the ones he would later encounter in Miami. "I saw junks, sampans and craft like that, but I didn't have to inspect them," he says.

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