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Still she remains unbowed. "We will never shut up," Perez vows.
In a remarkable about-face this past October 2, DERM director Renfro sent Mestre a letter ordering that the Ouster site be closed at once. The letter further stated: "Upon receipt of this notice immediately initiate removal of all soil-like material on the subject property and complete said removal within ninety (90) days of receipt of this NOTICE."
Renfro says he finally grew weary of Ouster's noncompliance, particularly when the company was unable to install all the monitoring wells DERM required as quickly as the county wanted. "We gave them more than adequate chances to comply," he admits. "When we had to go in there and put in our own wells I said, “That's it.'"
Mena and an unlikely band of citizen activists had finally won. But with plumes of arsenic and ammonia beneath Mestre's property, fear continues today in the neighborhood.
Four days prior to Renfro exercising his unexercised powers of enforcement, Mayor Alex Penelas sent a memo to County Manager Steve Shiver. (Tony Mena had first complained to the mayor's office about Ouster in 1998.) In the interim Mestre trucked hundreds of thousands of tons of Fines to the Redland. Penelas himself met with Mena and a group of residents twice, the first time last August. But now, finally, something was being done.
Penelas's note began: "As you know, for quite some time I have been deeply concerned about the numerous health related complaints from area residents regarding the operations of the Ouster Corporation's facility located at 21001 SW 167th Avenue."
The mayor then wrote that DERM "apprised" him of its cease-and-desist order, as if the decision wasn't a political one as many believe. It's more likely that his fundraiser Mestre's arsenic contamination had simply proved too much of a liability. (Although Penelas spokesman David Perez promised a comment from the mayor, it was not forthcoming at press time. In the past Penelas has denied any connection between fundraising and contract awards.)
Penelas continued: "[The] plume of contaminated ground water poses significant health risks to the surrounding residents who depend on wells for their potable water supply."
The neighbors could be excused for questioning the sincerity of Penelas's concern after so many years of inaction, though most seem plain grateful that their nightmare might be coming to an end. "This is America," protests Ellen Perez. "We shouldn't have to deal with this. There are supposed to be laws to protect us."
The struggle, though, is far from over, and not just for Perez, who continues to be mauled by Mestre's mouthpiece, Andres Rivero. The cease-and-desist order mandates that Mestre clean up the site and eliminate the contamination that literally looms over the neighborhood's water supply.
"Furthermore, evidence indicates that your facility's onsite operations have resulted in soil and ground water contamination that requires correction of the violations and restoration of said ground and ground water in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 24, Miami-Dade County Code," reads Renfro's letter.
If the material is trucked away, eventually the ammonia that is caused by the breakdown of organic waste will dissipate, opines John Wade. Not so the arsenic, which leaches out of the soil and bonds with the limestone underneath. Once it is saturated, it then leaks into the ground water. If the soil is not removed and the limestone scraped, there is the possibility that arsenic could enter the ground water over a long span of time. "They are going to have to clean up the ground as well as the water," Wade warns.
Wade thinks that if Mestre had been allowed to collect Fines at the site unabated, eventually the Ouster property would have qualified for federal designation as a superfund site, a government program that provides money to locate, investigate, and clean up the nation's contamination problems.
DERM's Robert Johns says that by January 2002, when Mestre must have all the Fines removed, Ouster also is obligated to submit a report on how it will clean up the site. He expects the company to make a case that simply monitoring the plumes to see if they go away on their own will be sufficient. Cleaning the Ouster site might not come cheap. Perhaps, with Penelas's newfound respect for the Redland environment and, more important, the vigilance of the inspector general's office, Tomas Mestre might be forced to pay to do it anyway. Then again, if the past is any indication, it is more than likely the public will foot the bill in the end.