Last September, county officials discovered that soil in Coconut Grove's Merrie Christmas Park was holding toxic waste leftover from a long-gone incinerator, including harmful toxins such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, and lead.
The contaminated section of the park was closed, but just a couple of weeks ago the city revealed it had a clean-up plan so the park could be reopened: Instead of removing the toxic soil, the city would redistribute it throughout the park and cover it with a couple of feet of new soil.
Neighbors, unaware of the plan until a bulldozer showed up at the site, were outraged. "We all just flipped out," Ken Russell, who lives across the street from Merrie Christmas, tells Riptide.
Even though the city claimed the redistribution plan was safe, Russell says neighbors were worried that having toxins a few feet underground still posed a danger -- soil erosion and flooding, for example, could shift the contaminants. "That's why we think they need to just get rid of it," he says.
Under the city's excavation and redistribution plan, the park had been labeled in July a brownfield site, which helps bring in some state funding but also delivers a major hit to property values.
After weeks of rallying neighbors, on Sunday residents held a protest in the clean section of the park, with the rallying cry of "Clean up, not cover up.' Authorities took note: After the protest, Russell met with Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, the redistribution plan was put on hold, and Sarnoff, who lives in Coconut Grove, agreed work with the city commission to try to drop the brownfield designation.
But clean-up plans are still up in the air: Besides Merrie Christmas Park, five other parks also have contaminated soil. If the city pays to remove the contaminated soil from Merrie Christmas, the theory goes, it would also have to do so at the other parks, and the funding isn't available.
Russell is encouraged by the response to the action on Merrie Christmas and adds that he hopes the city reconsiders the plan in the other areas as well.
"It's not just about our park," he says. "We hope that all the parks get the same treatment and don't have to scream as loud as we have to get it done."
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A public hearing is scheduled to discuss the options this Thursday.
Update: This post has been corrected to reflect that the city already designated Merrie Christmas a brownfield site in July and that Sarnoff will have to work with the city commission to change that designation.