Dredge Dirge

Authorities are in a pickle over where to dump the toxic sludge soon to be scraped from the Miami River

Picture King Kong, belly bulging from his diet of lead, mercury, and cadmium cakes, splashing across Biscayne Bay and proceeding to wade up the Miami River, evacuating his bowels as he goes. And say, at the end of the day, the toxic doo-doo was of such quantity that it would fill the 55-story First Union Bank tower. If decades later you were responsible for finding a proper place to dispose of the copious caca,where would you put it?

(a) a fourteen-acre parcel of land near Miami International Airport, where Florida Power and Light plans to build a substation

(b) a large parking lot near Miami Jai-Alai scheduled for use by construction workers

"They've all got warts," says marine contractor Richard Bunnell of possible sites for toxic dredged material
Steve Satterwhite
"They've all got warts," says marine contractor Richard Bunnell of possible sites for toxic dredged material

(c) a ten-acre piece of land owned by a local shipping company and adjacent to a riverside park

(d) that riverside park itself

(e) a rectangular inlet of Biscayne Bay between Bicentennial Park and the American Airlines Arena that resembles a slip for large vessels or

(f) your neighborhood

We realize the choices are not pretty. You can't call your lifeline. Nor can the folks overseeing plans to dredge the Miami River. Nonetheless if you selected (a), you would be in sync with Miami-Dade County officials in charge of acquiring a disposal site for the slimy sediment.

Unfortunately the county recently dropped that very complicated option after considering it for many months. On June 2 Assistant County Manager Pete Hernandez met with FPL executives to discuss the MIA parcel, where the utility has long planned to build a power station. The idea was to let the county have that acreage to dry the sediment before moving it to a permanent storage site; FPL would get property owned by a nearby car-rental company. But the parties could not come to terms. "The participants all had a very cooperative spirit," says David Miller, managing director of the Miami River Commission, a state-appointed body. "But it just couldn't be done."

Now time is running out on the dredging money. Five million federal dollars allocated last year for the process could dry up by the end of August if the county doesn't find another disposal site. Another three million dollars in state funds set aside for the project could also disappear.

The river bottom has not been scraped since the Thirties, when the waterway was deepened and widened for commercial shippers. Since then layers of sediment containing toxic heavy metals such as lead, copper, cadmium, and mercury have formed. Runoff from Miami-Dade's sometimes ineffective and aging storm sewers has made matters worse.

In the early Seventies, local officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to study the possibility of doing something about the buildup. The corps rejected the idea of dredging, concluding it would make no sense until local authorities stanched the flow of pollutants then streaming into the Magic City's Styx from riverside sewers, metal-recycling plants, and other businesses.

The studies and meetings continued into the Nineties. A few things changed. In 1990 the corps reversed course and concluded dredging was justified. Shipping companies agreed. They were losing money because the river was unnavigable for fully loaded vessels. After a series of mishaps, including an incident in which a pile of sludge scooped from the river bottom burst into flames, everyone from Washington to Dinner Key seemed to agree it was time for action. A year ago the federal government decided to pick up 75 percent of the tab for removing the muck if state and local authorities contributed. The state agreed to kick in three million dollars in spring 1999, the Miami City Commission approved a million dollars this past April, and Miami-Dade commissioners added another million in May. Overall estimated cost: $80 to $100 million.

Dredging still can't begin, however, until the county provides a disposal site for the poisonous slime. Because the chemicals it contains cannot be dumped in the ocean or burned, the muck must be dried and buried inside expensive containers known as geotextiles, designed to keep the toxins out of ground water.

With (a) scratched off the list, the search should be a little easier. If you selected (b) or (c), you are on the same wavelength as the river commission and some county officials, who are now studying these two options. Choice (b) will involve negotiating with American Airlines, because the parking lot is slated to be used by construction teams working on the company's new terminal at MIA. Option (c) would require the county to buy or lease a parcel owned by Bernuth Marine Shipping, whose owner, Jordan Monocandilos, sits on the river commission's dredging working group. Because the river runs right next to the property, near NW 24th Street, the corps would have to build a series of berms to prevent the industrial excrement from oozing back into the water.

If you picked choice (d), you are cuckoo (although the river commission has discussed this possibility). "I don't think that one would go over very well with the City of Miami," chuckles Richard Bunnell, a river commission member and president of a marine engineering company that plans to bid on the dredging project. Indeed at a recent meeting, city development chief Dianne Johnson predicted the idea of turning Curtis Park on NW North River Drive into a temporary toxic waste dump would cause an uproar among environmentalists. But the location remains on the county's list.

And then there's (e), certainly the most creative, if desperate, disposal idea to date. This proposal would involve filling in the slip with earth and then burying the toxic material about three feet below the surface. "That would be by far the cheapest and quickest [disposal site]," says Jerry Scarborough, the Army Corps' project manager for the Miami River. Instead of $100 million, Scarborough estimates, the dredging would likely cost less than $30 million. "You cap it with clean sand," explains corps scientist Glen Schuster. "We do that in the Northeast all the time."

"That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!" exclaims Don Chinquina, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society. He also believes environmental groups have been almost entirely left out of the decision-making process. He notes the majority of the river commission's dredging committee -- shippers, engineers, and consultants -- represent companies that stand to gain commercially from the sludge removal. "That's a fine motive," says Chinquina, "but don't promote dredging under the banner that it's for environmental reasons. If dredging is going to do more damage ... then just leave it on the bottom."

If you picked (f), your neighborhood, call Roger Hernstadt immediately. He is the county official in charge of the disposal site search.

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