Greed Stinks

It smells like political cronyism, laced with a little Penelas and arsenic

Wilfork defends the decision. "It was clean material, so I didn't see the need for a bond," he says.

On April 23, 1999, Wilfork tried to strike an agreement with Montenay that let Ouster off the hook for any potential contamination in Mena's neighborhood as well. It read: "The county shall only accept environmental responsibility for surface, subsurface, or ground water contamination which is directly attributable to the storage of Fines at the contractor's recycling site(s)."

Nine months later Christopher Mazzella, the county's inspector general, would write a harsh memo to then-County Manager Merrett Stierheim, criticizing Wilfork's agreement as giving too much power to Ouster and questioning whether the director had the authorization to enter into it. The IG's intervention stopped Wilfork's effort. (Wilfork claims he stopped it on his own. At County Manager Shiver's request, the IG further investigated Ouster's relations with the county in July of this year, concluding that while inferences of preferential treatment may be unfair, the county should not add to the perception by considering positions which seem to benefit Ouster at the expense of the county.) In his memo Mazzella pointed out what should have been startlingly obvious to Wilfork, who has six years at the helm of his department. The IG wrote: "The county should not contractually agree to more liability than legally need be."

Greg Houston
Even when his own family told him to walk away, Tony Mena still fought for his American dream
Steve Satterwhite
Even when his own family told him to walk away, Tony Mena still fought for his American dream

Between his agreements and the IG memo, Wilfork hatched other plans on behalf of Mestre. When Ouster couldn't find anyone to buy their "soil-like" material, Wilfork in January and February 2000 tried to force another county contractor, Brown and Caldwell, to take the Fines themselves as fill for a different county project. Brown and Caldwell balked because Ouster was asking for a fee that was roughly 50 percent more than the cost of virgin material already approved by DERM.

Wilfork also tried in March, April, and May to push through bid waivers for hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the Fines from Ouster. The efforts ended after the inspector general's office got involved. Deputy Inspector General Alan Solowitz advised the county to test the Ouster material to see if it was indeed a "miracle" soil. "It is the OIG's concern that should the county pay for Fines, then it should pay a reasonable price, and it should get the expected performance out of the product," he wrote. "In other words the county should get what it paid for."

In the end Wilfork succeeded in finding a way to buy the material from Mestre by using a proviso in the county's contract with Montenay. Beginning in May 2001, Miami-Dade County started purchasing Ouster Fines through Montenay to serve as cover for the South Miami-Dade landfill. Initially the county paid $3.60 per ton to purchase the Fines, though in October a cost-of-living increase raised the price to $3.70. As of October 31, the county has acquired 102,638 tons for about $369,500. It is expected the department will buy all the Fines Mestre has left, according to Wilfork's assistant, Paul Mauriello.

Wilfork claims that the material is actually cheaper than what the county normally uses for landfill cover and will save taxpayers close to a million dollars. "We have a good deal," he insists.

From April 24, 1997, to August 2001, Ouster hauled 226,546 tons of Fines from Montenay, according to the county solid waste department. At $3.10 per ton, Mestre made about $7 million. From December 1997 to May 2001, the Fines Ouster trucked went to Mena's neighborhood. By the end of August 2000, DERM had determined that Mestre still had 130,740 tons onsite in the Redland. As of press time, the agency says there are about 43,000 tons left.

Mena and other residents point out that as taxpayers they essentially paid for the Fines twice -- first when Montenay (which is subsidized by the public) paid Mestre to haul it away and again when county solid waste bought it back for the landfill cover. County bureaucrats insist that because the Montenay facility is privately run, it is not public money that pays Mestre to haul it away. Thus the taxpayer is not paying Mestre twice for moving the Fines around. "It comes out of Montenay's bottom line," notes Mauriello. "They are responsible for disposal of the material."

As the Ouster problem continues to fester, the distinctions between who owns what and where responsibility begins and ends could well become the subject of future litigation.

This past September the National Academy of Sciences released a report showing that the federal Environmental Protection Agency had underestimated the cancer risks of arsenic in drinking water. The report forced a reluctant Bush administration to accept more stringent standards for the toxic metal than the current 50 parts per billion. It concluded that at even 3 parts per billion, the risk of bladder and lung cancer is between four and ten cancer deaths per 10,000 people. The new standard is likely to be the 10 parts per billion originally proposed by the Clinton administration. For soil, which is less dangerous, the maximum concentration of arsenic allowed at industrial sites is 3.7 parts per million.

Ground water sampled from beneath the Ouster site in South Miami-Dade has shown concentrations of arsenic as high as 380 parts per billion, 38 times the new standard (although the "arsenic plume," or trace penetration pattern, is relatively small). In the Fines sitting atop a small portion of Mestre's 23-acre property, samples have indicated arsenic levels as high as 8.5 parts per million. Additionally there is a plume of ammonia beneath the ground that seems to cover at least several acres. To date neither the arsenic nor ammonia has migrated into the well water of neighbors.

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