Miami's Toxic Parks

Miami's Toxic Parks
Illustration by Jeremy Enecio

After locals were stung by the revelation that Miami leaders have known for two years that toxic ash is poisoning the Coconut Grove neighborhood surrounding its long-closed "Old Smokey" trash incinerator, city officials wasted little time last week confronting the latest environmental crisis.

Just four days after learning that soil tests in nearby Blanche Park turned up traces of dioxins, arsenic, barium, lead, and other deadly contaminants — presumably from deposits of incinerator ash — City of Miami crews swooped in with an assuring show of force, carting away truckloads of toxic soil and paving the excavated area with a foot of asphalt.

Commissioner Marc Sarnoff — who, as fate would have it, lives across the street from the tiny strip of leafy suburban green space — held vigil, pledging to neighbors and TV cameras that city workers were doing everything possible to guarantee the health and safety of residents, a message he repeated a week later at a tense, city-sponsored community gathering. Testing, he declared, would continue.

University of Miami law school fellow Zach Lipshultz pushed the City of Miami to take action on ash dumped from Old Smokey.
Marta Xochilt Perez
University of Miami law school fellow Zach Lipshultz pushed the City of Miami to take action on ash dumped from Old Smokey.
Old Smokey, an infamous incinerator that was demolished years ago.
The Miami Herald/John Rogers Partners
Old Smokey, an infamous incinerator that was demolished years ago.

Location Info

Map

Jose Marti Park

362 SW 4th St.
Miami, FL 33130

Category: Parks and Outdoors

Region: Little Havana

Blanche Park

3070 Virginia St.
Miami, FL 33133

Category: Parks and Outdoors

Region: Coconut Grove

But far from the media spotlight and the glare of embarrassed city officials, toxic cleanup at four other city-owned properties is far less of a priority. There has been virtually no community input and little public awareness of the dangers that contaminated soils pose. Two of those properties are anonymous plots of grass with few visitors, but the other two are within high-volume recreational parks that serve a mostly low-to-middle-income population and where unsuspecting users of all ages and interests might be treading on ground unfit for human contact.

Four miles up the road from the toxic ground zero of Coconut Grove, in the shadow of the Dolphin Expressway on NW 11th Street near 22nd Avenue, sits Fern Isle Park, a narrow swath of ball fields, picnic pavilions, and the grassed-over remains of an illegal dump used for years by City of Miami work crews.

In 2001, county environmental regulators busted the city, issued a cease-and-desist order to stop the dumping, and demanded a clean-up plan, including lab tests to measure the toxicity of contaminated soil and groundwater. But according to reams of public records from the case uncovered by New Times, city officials refused to close the dump, arguing they would limit deposits to yard waste and what they considered other "clean" debris.

In time, they relented and shut down the dump, but records show officials routinely disregarded county demands to clean up and test the site, which abuts the south shore of a tributary to the Miami River. Not until 2005 did dumping cease entirely. The site was quickly cleared, and soil and water tests were completed. The results were alarming: PCBs, arsenic, cadmium, ammonia, and petroleum-based pollutants in the soil and groundwater.

A year later, at the request of Miami-Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), which has enforcement powers in pollution cases across the county, the city removed a layer of contaminated soil and installed monitoring wells to routinely test groundwater. But when subsequent tests revealed toxic substances remained, DERM asked that the site be covered in a two-foot layer of clean fill, effectively burying the contaminants.

The city, it seems, simply refused. In a dizzying exchange of emails, phone calls, and letters over the past seven years, county regulators prodded city officials to cap the site. "I would ask that you make one more attempt to bring these critical matters to the attention of the appropriate personnel, and please copy me on the correspondence," DERM code enforcement officer John D. Andersen wrote in a terse July 2012 email to the City of Miami's environmental compliance officer, Harry James. "If we can not get key people within the City onboard with us and committed to moving forward with these environmental concerns within the next few weeks, we will have to regroup on the County-side and see how our management wants to proceed."

The threat did little good. Two and a half weeks later, city officials finally responded, but only with another request to extend their deadline for submitting their long-awaited clean-up plan. DERM approved the extension, but the plan never arrived, records show.

This past April, results of yet another soil and water test confirmed that contaminants remained. A month later, county regulators issued their most recent directive — addressed by certified letter to City of Miami Manager Johnny Martinez — demanding the city cap the site, install more monitoring wells, and submit an updated soil analysis within 60 days. That deadline passed July 15 with, predictably, no response from city officials.

The case came to light this past spring when a graduate student at the University of Miami School of Law's Center for Ethics and Public Service, 24-year-old Zach Lipshultz, was helping residents prepare a legal challenge to a trolley garage under construction in their West Grove neighborhood.

Why, he wondered, did the city-backed garage plan include a provision — negotiated by Sarnoff and other city officials — for a $200,000 gift from the developer for installation of artificial turf on an athletic field six blocks away? A public records request uncovered a shocking secret: Two years earlier, the land surrounding Old Smokey — which lies adjacent to the athletic field — tested positive for arsenic, lead, cadmium, and a host of other toxic substances.

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12 comments
susanwilliams407
susanwilliams407

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illwilled19
illwilled19

I'm sure the Miami River is just toxic waste flowing out into the sea, just look at all the businesses that have existed along the river for years would know the illegal dumping that gone on there is Common , not to mention whatever lies beneath those waters ,,,,,,

halen156
halen156

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drakemallard
drakemallard topcommenter


You control our world. You’ve poisoned the air we breathe, contaminated the water we drink, and copyrighted the food we eat. We fight in your wars, die for your causes, and sacrifice our freedoms to protect you. You’ve liquidated our savings, destroyed our middle class, and used our tax dollars to bailout your unending greed. We are slaves to your corporations, zombies to your airwaves, servants to your decadence. You’ve stolen our elections, assassinated our leaders, and abolished our basic rights as human beings. You own our property, shipped away our jobs, and shredded our unions. You’ve profited off of disaster, destabilized our currencies, and raised our cost of living. You’ve monopolized our freedom, stripped away our education, and have almost extinguished our flame. We are hit… we are bleeding… but we ain’t got time to bleed. We will bring the giants to their knees and you will witness our revolution!

drakemallard
drakemallard topcommenter

poor families reside. Poor parents are constrained in theirchoice of neighborhoods and schools. Lowincome may lead to residence in extremelypoor neighborhoods characterized by socialdisorganization (crime, many unemployedadults, neighbors not monitoring the behavor of adolescents)

 Do you live next to some of the nation’s worst toxic waste sites and not even know it?

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RafT
RafT

My neighbor in the Grove died of Pancreatic cancer.  She was a teacher at Carver Middle, one of the potential toxic sites.  RIP.

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hall16243

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