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"No matter how these people cut this shit, it's bad news in the soil and in the water," asserts John Wade.
Wade is a retired environmental compliance coordinator who put his expertise to work trying to help Mena and those who live near the Ouster site. In 1996 the tall and wiry Wade retired from 25 years at Florida Power and Light, a career that included 15 years as the head of the company's chemistry department at the Turkey Point nuclear reactor. He and his wife, Pat, who sits on a local community council form part of a group of South Miami-Dade activists associated with a prominent civic group in the area, the Redland Citizens Association(RCA), which tries to protect agriculture from development. Mena had gone to the RCA for help in 1998 to challenge Ouster's zoning. Their efforts to halt Mestre's use of the land for Fines storage through challenging zoning technicalities failed at the community council and then failed again on appeal before the county commission in December 1999.
John Wade didn't get involved with the struggle until just before the commission hearing, yet his technical background would prove invaluable. He rummaged through the voluminous files at DERM and grasped the danger of the junk "soil" stockpiled in Mena's neighborhood. "I started to realize this stuff was nasty," he says.
DERM officials contend the Fines were safe, if stored for a limited time, and in manageable quantities. Ouster did neither.
"It really was very similar to soil," insists John Renfro, the DERM director who still doesn't seem quite clear on what exactly the material is. "This soil is supposedly shaken out of yard trash, trees, branches, and that kind of thing."
Renfro insists DERM scientists tested the material before allowing it to be dumped and found it wasn't "dangerous stuff." Seven months after Ouster began dumping, the county's Environmental Quality Control Board determined the Fines was not hazardous waste despite its traces of heavy metals like lead and arsenic.
If it was so safe, how does Renfro explain the high levels of arsenic in the ground water beneath the site today? "Things happen," he says. "Maybe they brought in a hot load one day. Who knows?"
Wade ridicules this theory. "The arsenic concentration has remained virtually the same in all the samples of the material," he says. "It is not one load that did this."
Wade discovered in the files that DERM knew fairly quickly that tests of the material showed lead and arsenic. The results prompted Renfro to forbid residential use of Ouster's "soil-like" material in March 1998. And a month later DERM would conclude that there existed a potential for the material to leach into the ground. But DERM officials insisted the problem could be managed -- explaining that they never thought the material would be at the site long enough for it to soak into the ground. "We were thinking it was supposed to be a depot," explains Robert Johns. "They were having marketing problems, so the piles were [growing] a lot larger than we anticipated, and they stayed there a lot longer."
By the fall of 2000, a terrible pattern had set in. DERM would hit Ouster with a number of minor enforcement actions that seemed to have the effect of a fly buzzing in the ear of an elephant. As the notice of violation letters piled up, Ouster's high-priced leadership would promise compliance. The two sides would then meet and enter into an agreement that allowed Mestre to keep the Fines coming. At no point did DERM levy a fine against Mestre, though it was within the department's rights to do so. Despite clear language in the agreements that gave Renfro the power to shut down Ouster for failure to comply, he refused to step in and avert the disaster.
"We have to base our decision on science," Renfro insists. "We would have acted faster if there was an [immediate] danger to the [neighbor's] wells. If we stopped every place that showed some contamination, I would have to shut down every business in Dade County."
It didn't seem to matter that DERM registered more than 60 odor complaints from residents, validating seventeen days of documentable problems (a number Mena and residents say is laughably low). Nor, until recently, would it carry enough weight for Renfro that Ouster was routinely late with reports and sampling. What is most galling to Wade and residents is that when DERM discovered contamination beneath the Ouster site in September 2000, it didn't bother to inform residents. Wade learned about it while perusing the DERM files six months later. "I was shocked they didn't tell anybody," he says. "It was a big damn secret."
Renfro defends the decision. "There was no reason to [tell them] at that time," he insists. "I have to go by the book. If there is a problem, let's see how bad it is and where it [exists first]."
As the result of a subsequent agreement with DERM, Ouster installed what would eventually become thirteen monitoring wells inside and outside the property to make sure the arsenic and ammonia does not migrate into wells that are used as the primary source of drinking water for residents. At least three of those wells, outside the Mestre property, had to be installed by DERM officials themselves because Ouster took too long.