The infamous incinerator Old Smokey was demolished in 1974.
The infamous incinerator Old Smokey was demolished in 1974.
The Miami Herald/John Rogers Partners

Miami Sued for Dumping Cancer-Causing Toxic Ash on Segregated Neighborhood

For decades, Miami's "Old Smokey" trash incinerator operated near Coconut Grove, belching smoke over George Washington Carver K-12 School, a segregated, black-only school from its inception in 1899 until the county desegregated in 1966. In 2014, New Times tracked down residents who grew up under Old Smokey's ash plume, and quickly discovered many of them later developed respiratory problems, sinus issues, chronically itchy eyes, and even pancreatic cancer.

Now ten residents have filed a class-action lawsuit claiming Miami failed to warn residents about the toxic ash for years and, thus, subjected Old Smokey's neighbors to a life of health problems that could have been prevented. The plaintiffs say the city is ducking around taking full responsibility for what happened, including the fact that Miami built multiple public parks atop toxic-ash dumping grounds.

"Plaintiffs have been exposed to greater than normal background levels of various toxic chemicals including but not limited to arsenic, lead, and dioxins in addition to other toxic contaminants," reads the suit, filed against the City of Miami September 27.

The claims shouldn't come as a surprise to city officials. New Times warned in 2014 that Old Smokey would likely wind up costing taxpayers tons in legal bills and that city officials were willfully ignoring warnings that areas of West Coconut Grove were highly toxic. City Commissioner Ken Russell initially ran for public office after reading New Times' toxic-park series and becoming an advocate on the issue. Since 2014, the city has identified and worked to clean up the toxic parks built on top of ash dumps (including Armbrister Park, Blanche Park, Billy Rolle Domino Park, and Merrie Christmas Park), but the plaintiffs argue Miami must help them deal with the fallout from being effectively segregated into toxic neighborhoods for the better part of a century.

Of the ten plaintiffs, nine said they attended the Carver schools (the K-12 school was later split into elementary and middle schools), and the list of medical ailments they blame on the incinerator ash is harrowing. The group's members say they have suffered from cardiovascular issues, diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic bronchitis, asthma, fertility problems, seizures, cancer, and leukemia. According to the suit, those issues can be traced to exposure to the various toxic chemicals that Old Smokey blasted into the air for years.

"Municipal trash incinerators are well-known sources of dangerous pollutants," the suit says. "A trash incinerator produces both 'fly ash,' which is emitted from smoke-stacks, and 'bottom ash,' which is generated in the incinerator furnace."

The suit says both kinds of ash can contain toxic heavy metals, including lead, mercury, chromium, arsenic, cadmium, and beryllium, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned in the United States in 1979 because of their toxicity, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which come from burnt biofuels and have been linked to skin, lung, bladder, liver, and stomach cancers. Fly ash tends to be more harmful to human health — 50 pounds of trash typically produces ten pounds of ash, and one pound tends to wind up floating through the air and into people's lungs. One 1996 study showed that residents of a town in northern Italy who grew up next to an incinerator were seven times likelier to die of lung cancer.

When Old Smokey was built in 1925, Coconut Grove was still heavily segregated, and the white-controlled town government didn't question placing a massive smokestack right next to what was then called the "Colored Grove." But the smokestack became an immediate nuisance. Residents previously told New Times that when they were growing up, their parents warned them not to eat fruit off any of the trees because they assumed it was toxic. (They were probably correct.) Sometimes the smoke would grow too thick, and parents would bring their children inside. Embers from the incinerator would randomly shoot out of the plant and, according to the suit, light houses on fire.

The idea to shutter the incinerator came about only because of the civil rights movement, which is a polite way of saying the plant was closed to protect the white children now attending Carver. A white retired attorney named Michael Tobin demanded Judge Raymond Nathan visit the school to see what the incinerator was doing to the neighborhood where Tobin's son was now going to school. Nathan ordered the plant shut down 24 hours after his visit in 1970. The plant was demolished four years later. (The City of Miami Fire-Rescue Training Center was built on the site in 1983.)

But for the next half-century, it appears city officials ignored multiple claims that people who grew up near Old Smokey were getting sick. Officials admitted they were aware of the carcinogenic areas only in the fall of 2013, after New Times and the Miami Herald uncovered documents that showed the city had known for years that some parts of town were toxic.

Most notable, New Times reported that a year later, city officials were still blatantly ignoring reports that areas of the West Grove were heavily contaminated — and hadn't notified residents living nearby. In 2014, the Carver High School Alumni Association, University of Miami Law School, and other groups collaborated on a website and 30-minute documentary about the incinerator site:

Now some residents say the only way to get the city to act with any sense of urgency is to take it to court.

"To date, no action has been taken to address this exposed population or to prevent future exposures from the Fire Training Center/Old Smokey site," the suit says.

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