By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Tony Mena remembers the exact moment he discovered his home and family were being poisoned. "It was the perfect day to be outside," he recalls, the kind of beautiful January afternoon that compels snowbirds from around the nation to flock to South Florida. This was Mena's first winter in his new home in the Redland district of South Miami-Dade. For the shy, soft-spoken, 28-year-old workaholic, few pleasures equaled barbecuing in his backyard, the chief attraction of the property. His land stretched for more than two acres and included a stand of 110 mango and avocado trees. Toward the front of the property sat a small two-bedroom house, a little cramped for the fact that Mena and his wife, Isabel, shared it with her parents. Still, away from the long hours logged at the offices of the architectural firm where he worked, this was his oasis.
That Saturday, January 17, 1998, Mena had planned to grill up some ribs and chicken for his extended family, which included his sister Arlene and both sets of parents, Antonio and Leonor and Jesus and Cristina. All were born in Cuba. Tony and his family had come to Miami in 1980 upon the release of his father, Antonio, a political prisoner, from Castro's jails. Isabel and his in-laws arrived in 1994. The families had been united by marriage and within a few months would welcome the next generation, a grandson, Tony Jr.
The crack in Mena's American dream began some time after high noon, when the wind shifted and began to blow from the northwest. Along with the afternoon breeze came a foul smell that the taciturn Mena describes as being like "rotting garbage." Almost a year later, a county environmental inspector trained to document such aromas would jot down his professional appraisal: "This odor resembles a combination of vomit, rotting wet vegetative mulch, and an occasional eucalyptuslike scent." Its foul, suffocating stink drove Mena and his guests inside. "They were talking more about the smell than the barbecue ribs," he remembers.
Mena had a fair idea of the odor's origins. During the past several weeks he'd noticed white solid-waste trucks in his neighborhood. Recently he'd watched them line up on the other side of the railroad tracks across a field that abutted the back of his place. The trucks methodically dumped a light brown material in piles that grew larger every day on the property, which fronted SW 167th Avenue.
"I don't like the feeling I'm getting from this," Mena thought, when he first noticed them. "It looks like landfill."
That Monday he went by the site and fell into conversation with a worker who identified himself as Ricardo. The man told him they were storing soil at the site to sell. When Mena asked him what the material consisted of, Ricky replied, "Soil and wood." He then assured Mena he needn't worry, for it was "environmentally safe." But the exchange didn't make the homeowner feel better.
In an account of the incident he would later write, Mena states, "After talking to him, I was very worried, because they had [so far] only developed a small area [of their property], and the bad odors at times were [already] all over the [neighborhood]."
The next day Mena went about trying to gather real information. As an architectural assistant, he had access to runners who work the county bureaucracy for firms like his, delivering plans and accessing information. He asked one to check whether the property had all its permits and licenses. The next day the plan runner called and told him she couldn't find anything on the site. So on Wednesday, he went to the Stephen P. Clark Government Center on NW First Street. It would be the beginning of almost four years of constant begging and cajoling to try to convince county bureaucrats to do their jobs. Along the way he got a truer taste of how Miami-Dade politics really works than any citizen would care to have.
First Mena stopped at the property appraisal office, where he says he was informed that the land was being used to "grow vegetables"! He next went to the zoning department; they bucked him on to the zoning processing section. He learned the property was zoned as industrial, but that no zoning application existed on it. When he told them what was happening, they suggested he report it to the county's Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM), because there was no zoning application for the property. Up until that point, Mena had been operating in familiar territory. As someone who had fulfilled nearly all the requirements to be a licensed architect, he knew the ins and outs of the county building department. But his experience with Miami-Dade's environmental regulators was next to nil.
During his visit to DERM that day, he would speak with four different people. After going through an inspector, he saw Gwladys Scott, another inspector who told him the site was on DERM's radar and that the department was working with the owner. When Mena inquired about who that was, he was told, erroneously, that it was the Montenay Power Corporation, a private company that processes Miami-Dade's garbage and trash at a county-owned plant called the Resource Recovery Facility. Scott then passed Mena on to Nahum Fernandez, the DERM area officer for Mena's neighborhood.