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The idea behind Ouster was simple enough: Take something that nobody wanted and turn it into gold. The county delivers about 1,206,000 tons of garbage and trash per year to the Montenay-run, county-owned Resource Recovery facility in North Miami-Dade. Some of it gets burned. Some gets recycled. Once it enters the gates of the facility, the rubbish largely becomes Montenay property.
One stream of waste that comes to Montenay is classified euphemistically as "yard trash." It's composed of debris from trees and lawns as well as some other materials collected curbside. When the trash comes into Montenay, big items are separated out. The smallest material is shredded. From this comes a potentially toxic soil-like substance called "Fines." It was this material that Mena saw delivered to Mestre's property. (Wilfork insists it is "clean material" but is at a loss to explain why it has tested for arsenic and toxic metals.)
Montenay needed to get rid of the Fines as cheaply as possible. The county had an interest in finding a use for the material rather than letting it take up valuable landfill space. Additionally Wilfork frequently touted the fact that finding a home for the Fines would satisfy a general Florida recycling goal of 30 percent, though solid waste resource recovery administrator Paul Mauriello admits, "You don't really get anything for meeting it."
Mestre offered a solution that would answer both the needs of the county and Montenay while making him a ton of money in the process. (Since the Waste King refuses to answer questions about his exact intentions, they must be divined from interviews with county officials and an examination of the public record.) Here is how it was supposed to work: Montenay would pay Mestre about $3 a ton to take the Fines. Mestre would then bring the material to Mena's rural neighborhood, where he would stockpile it on a parcel of land conveniently zoned for industrial use. Through a natural process, the stuff would decompose slightly, ratcheting up its organic content. Then Mestre would turn around and sell it to area plant nurseries as "miracle" soil. (In 1997 Mestre found a university professor who vouched for the use of the material for mulching and compost, but a year later DERM disallowed it for residential use because of the concentration of toxic metals found in samples.) To date it is unclear how much, if any, of the Fines Mestre managed to sell to nurseries.
For the scheme to work, there were a few problems to overcome, but Tomas Mestre knew he had the county politicians and bureaucracy behind him. What nobody expected was how fiercely Redland residents would fight back.
"Whenever there was a question of interpretation, it seemed like the county ruled in favor of Ouster," complains Mena.
As one example among many, Mena notes that all evidence indicated Mestre's site was a composting facility, yet county officials refused to label it as such. The county determination proved vital, since a composting facility under the site's zoning designation would have been illegal.
"A composting facility is trash, garbage, fruits, and vegetables and all that good stuff," insists DERM's director John Renfro. "Let's not get silly about it; this is not a composting facility."
His point man on Ouster, Robert Johns, heartily agrees. Johns lists as proof all the extra regulations needed to operate a composting facility that DERM never made Mestre, the noncompost composter, perform. Yet the company was less oblique.
In Ouster's operation plan submitted to DERM on May 18, 1998, the company wrote, "[T]he primary purpose of this site is to act as a temporary storage location of potting soil-like material as well as a location at which additional composting material is nourished, enhancing the quality of the material for use in agricultural, commercial, and industrial applications."
Ever accommodating, DERM decided that the best way to keep the foul smells that emanated from Ouster down would be to treat the material like compost: separated into rows, kept at certain temperatures, and turned periodically. Indeed neighbors believe the stench was the worst when Ouster personnel turned the piles, exposing the more decayed bottom layer to the air. Despite its near-perfect imitation of a composting facility, county regulators dubbed it a "soil storage facility." Even some solid waste management department employees admit on background that Mestre's operation is a novelty. "There are plenty of composting facilities," one man says, "but I've never heard of a soil storage facility before."
There are no existing regulations for "soil storage facilities." Technically Renfro was right: Ouster was not a traditional composting facility. Yet its operations so closely mirrored one that it would have been common sense to regulate it as such, residents argue.
The helpfulness of county bureaucrats didn't end there.
On January 7, 1999, solid waste director Andrew Wilfork sent a memo to Renfro telling him that Ouster didn't need a bond to cover the county financially if problems arose and the material needed to be removed, but the company refused or was unable to do so. Instead Wilfork pledged that the solid waste department would take responsibility "for the ultimate disposition of this material."