The Dumbing-Down of DERM

More evidence that the county's environmental guardian has abandoned his post

Does John Renfrow suffer from a severely impaired memory? Or does Renfrow, director of Miami-Dade County's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), just want people to believe his memory is shot? Either way, it wouldn't be good news for the complex and fragile ecosystem he is supposed to be protecting.

But one person's garbage, as they say, is another's treasure. Plenty of unscrupulous Miami-Dade businessmen and developers would be pleased to learn that the county's top environmental watchdog seems to have contracted some kind of bureaucratic amnesia.

The quality of Renfrow's memory became an issue when, last month, he was questioned under oath as part of a lawsuit in which a politically connected businessman is suing an angry and determined Redland resident named Ellen Perez. During a deposition conducted by Perez's attorney, the DERM director appeared to know little about the dispute that led to the lawsuit -- a very serious contamination problem Renfrow's own department allowed to fester for several years. Worse (or better, depending on your point of view), he was unable to answer straightforward questions about the very environmental laws he is charged with enforcing.

Attorney Michael Pizzi (left) represents Ellen Perez (center) in a lawsuit that includes testimony from DERM director John Renfrow (right), who may or may not need a map to find his own office
Steve Satterwhite
Attorney Michael Pizzi (left) represents Ellen Perez (center) in a lawsuit that includes testimony from DERM director John Renfrow (right), who may or may not need a map to find his own office

It isn't uncommon for witnesses involved in civil lawsuits to play dumb in hopes of avoiding further entanglement in the litigation. But Renfrow's performance at the December deposition drew highly critical reviews from local environmentalists and other county residents who believe it demonstrated the degree to which he has capitulated to his pro-business boss, Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver. The critics charge that, as a result of pressure from the manager, 51-year-old Renfrow, DERM director since 1989, has fled from the responsibilities of his job, that he is now simply trying to protect his $149,000 salary, and that DERM has been effectively incapacitated by Shiver. (Renfrow did not respond to several requests for comment.)

"Everyone knows it's Steve [Shiver] who is pushing the buttons," asserts Barbara Lange, a well-known Sierra Club activist. "Renfrow is just looking to save himself when he should stand up and protect the environment."

Attorney Michael Pizzi, defending Perez in what he charges is a classic SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), found the DERM director to be singularly uninformed during the deposition. "Renfrow acted like he doesn't have a clue," says Pizzi. "You can't get a straight answer out of him on anything. The guy probably needs a map to find his office."

At the least it appears Renfrow would need a map to find the contamination site at the heart of the dispute.

Since 1998 Perez and her neighbors in the rural Redland district north of Homestead have been waging war against the Ouster Corp. and its owner, Tomas Andres Mestre, a wealthy trucking magnate who has hosted fundraisers for Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and Steve Shiver (when he was running for Homestead mayor).

In a deal approved by the county, Mestre's company earned roughly $700,000 by hauling more than 200,000 tons of waste material to property Ouster owned at SW 210th Street and 167th Avenue. Mestre's plan was to process the trash (yard clippings and other materials), then sell it to nurseries as mulch or compost.

The mountain of waste created a horrid stench that prompted more than 60 neighbors to complain to county officials. Of far greater concern than foul odors, however, was the discovery that the material was contaminated and posed uncertain but potentially grave health risks.

County bureaucrats, well aware of Mestre's political clout, didn't take regulatory action against Ouster until last year, when Renfrow finally shut down the site and ordered Mestre to remove the toxic trash. (Still Mestre managed to grab another $500,000 for transporting the material to the South Miami-Dade landfill.) Meanwhile the soil at the Ouster site remains contaminated and is being monitored by county officials.

Mestre's lawsuit, which is dragging into its second year, claims that Perez "intentionally made false statements about Ouster and its business activities for the purpose of harming Ouster to force it to close the facility." The fiery Redland homeowner mistakenly believed the county had found arsenic in her residential water well, and made comments to that effect to two local newspapers. According to attorney Pizzi, the court action has taken its toll on Perez. So far she has rung up $10,000 in legal fees, and the stress has led to another $16,000 in medical bills.

In the deposition, Pizzi questioned Renfrow on subjects ranging from the Ouster incident to details about his job as DERM director. Below are excerpts.

Pizzi: "What type of materials did Ouster take ... to their storage facility [in the Redland]?"

Renfrow: "It is what we referred to as soil-like material."

Pizzi: "What do you mean by soil-like material?"

Renfrow: "Well, there is no such -- since we didn't know exactly what it was, that is the terminology we gave it."

Pizzi: "Who gave it that term?"

Renfrow: "I don't remember."

Pizzi: "Where did [the material] come from?"

Renfrow: "I don't know."

Pizzi: "But wouldn't it be important for you to know where the material came from?"

Renfrow: "It would be important for me to know what is the material."

Pizzi: "What are DERM's requirements for maintaining a composting facility?"

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