By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Fernandez told Mena he didn't know exactly what the material consisted of since lab reports had not come back. "At the time I realized that I probably knew more about the composition of the [soil] than DERM did," Mena would write later in his log.
Fernandez took him to a complaint desk, where Mena filed a protest against the awful odor and illegal dumping on the property.
The next day he returned to the site to see if he could gather more information. Standing on the railroad easement outside the property, he queried Ricardo about the name of the company for which he worked. This time Ricardo called his supervisor. The man asked Mena for his name, but Tony wouldn't give it. "I told him I was a concerned neighbor," he recalls. Mena says the supervisor then accused him of trespassing and threatened to call the police. Mena pointed out that he was standing on the right of way, and the supervisor ended the conversation. The battle lines were drawn.
It would take awhile for Tony Mena to figure out exactly who was behind the assault against his home, and even longer for him to comprehend the apparent sway his unexpected adversary seemed to hold over the machinery of county government. His epiphany would come as the problem of nasty smells turned into a very real threat of arsenic in his water supply.
After calling Dennis Moss, his county commissioner, and Robert Johns, the DERM official charged with overseeing the site, Mena learned the company behind the dumping was named Ouster, owned by wealthy trucking magnate Tomas Andres Mestre. The name meant nothing to him, although it seemed to inspire fear among the minor county bureaucrats with whom he dealt. "As soon as I would mention Ouster, I would get bad faces, and they wouldn't be as helpful as other times," he claims.
The turning point in his understanding, Mena relates, came after reading articles in the Miami Herald and New Times. The two stories, one about a dubious recycling contract in the City of Miami, and the other about conflicts involving the cleanup of a landfill in Homestead, both detailed a disturbing pattern whereby the trucking mogul appeared to trade on political influence to land lucrative contracts from government agencies, which sometimes proved quite costly to taxpayers in the long run. For each story the Cuban-born Mestre directed reporters to a publicist rather than answer questions himself. (Today he and his minions are even more elusive, refusing to comment whatsoever on anything concerning Ouster, despite repeated requests. "There is nothing to talk about beyond the record," insists Mestre lawyer Andres Rivero.)
Mestre reaped much of his fortune after Hurricane Andrew. In 1994 the county's Department of Solid Waste Management awarded him a no-bid contract to haul away debris from the devastating storm. TheSun Sentinel revealed that Mestre's company, Resource Recovery Services, had charged $11.50 per ton, three times the going rate, then subcontracted the work to independent truckers and paid them $3.75 per ton. Taxpayers could have spent significantly less if the work had gone out competitively. Mestre's publicist blamed the markup on the costs of "project management," "loading," "insurance," and "storage."
What may have aided Mestre's business interests are his close ties with Mayor Alex Penelas's political machine. He hosted lavish fundraisers for both Penelas's 1996 and 2000 campaigns. For the former he personally donated $1500, according to the Miami Herald. His patronage extended to allies of the mayor as well. In June 1999 Mestre hosted a fundraiser for the mayoral campaign of former Homestead mayor and current County Manager Steve Shiver. The gala, held in Mestre's opulent $1.8 million home in the Redland, netted Shiver about $25,000. It came at the same time one of Mestre's companies was trying to win a piece of a city contract to clean up and develop an old landfill. (Shiver denied a conflict of interest because Mestre himself did not personally contribute to his campaign.)
With Ouster, Mestre's cooperation with county officials, to the detriment of the local citizenry, would rise to new heights. It's a charge that county officials dispute.
None of the scandals detailed in previous stories would be as egregious as the environmental harm Mestre caused in Mena's neighborhood. And no government effort on his behalf would be quite as bold and active as that of Andrew Wilfork, director of the county's Department of Solid Waste Management. Wilfork's machinations would be unknown to the neighbors who tried to fight off the scourge brought to the Redland. Even though Wilfork, a 30-year county veteran, provided the rationale and some of the money for the Ouster scheme, he left it to county environmental regulators at DERM to deal with the mess that resulted. In the thousands of pages of documents in the solid waste department's Ouster files, there appears to be little concern on Wilfork's part for the neighbors during their years of complaining.
Wilfork insists his department never regulated Ouster and blames DERM for allowing Mestre to stockpile the Fines for too long. "The failure was allowing him to continue to operate," he says. "They should have shut him down years ago."