City Ignores Reports of Toxic Soil in Residences, Sidewalks in Coconut Grove, Reports Show

Old Smokey, which was demolished decades ago, continues to contaminate Coconut Grove.
Old Smokey, which was demolished decades ago, continues to contaminate Coconut Grove.
The Miami Herald/John Rogers Partners

Last fall, Miami leaders finally admitted they'd known for years that the long-shuttered Old Smokey trash incinerator in Coconut Grove had poisoned the earth with toxic ash. But they've also insisted contamination is contained within a 4.5-acre, fenced-off facility.

However, new reports obtained by New Times contradict that claim, revealing instead that testing this summer found that residential properties and public rights of way adjacent to Old Smokey had dangerous levels of heavy metals and other highly toxic substances. And though the findings arrived in June, city officials have failed to notify residents, ignored repeated demands from county regulators to fence off dangerous sites and remove the toxin-laced soil, and refused to investigate the extent of the contamination.

See also: Miami's Toxic Parks

"I'm absolutely shocked," says Roland Daniels, who owns two properties on Washington Avenue, where some contamination levels are many times above limits deemed safe for human exposure. Daniels' properties -- one of which he rents to a tenant -- face Old Smokey's hulking shell, which now houses a fire department training center. "We were never told anything," he says.

Many longtime residents blame exposure to soot and ash from Old Smokey's incinerator for high rates of cancer and other health problems in the West Grove, a claim that public health officials at the local and state levels have refused to investigate. A group of residents last spring petitioned the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to examine those links. A response is expected later this fall.

Toxic ash from the incinerator, which was closed by court order in 1970 after 60 years of operation, was routinely buried on lands later reclaimed as public parks, including Douglas Park, Merrie Christmas Park, and Blanche Park. Those parks remain closed while crews remove tainted soil or install protective barriers.

The new information comes from a survey performed by an environmental consultant in June. The tests found dangerous levels of arsenic, barium, lead, and cadmium in soil along sidewalks and city streets in residential areas. Some of the contaminated sites are just steps from the Barnyard, an after-school program. (Soil within the Barnyard's fenced-in facility were not tested; program managers didn't respond to a request for comment.)

Within days of the discovery, records reveal, county environmental regulators responded with alarm, ordering the city to begin "immediate corrective action" by removing all contaminated soil.

But the city balked, citing the high volume and cost involved. Instead, environmental compliance officer Harry James proposed "fencing and warning signs" to restrict access to the contaminated sites while the city submitted its own plan for rendering the sites safe.

Neither the fences nor the signs -- nor the plan -- ever arrived, despite repeated threats of legal action by county enforcement officials. All the sites remain unmarked and easily accessible. (James didn't respond to New Times' request for comment).

The city, which owned and operated Old Smokey, also is resisting the county's ongoing demand to test abutting private properties for toxic soil.

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