Did You Sully That Gully?

Legendary bad neighbors: Egypt and Israel. The Hatfields and the McCoys. Dennis the Menace and George Wilson. Let's add a new twosome to the list: Homestead Air Force Base and Biscayne National Park.

Separated by a scant two miles, the sites are linked by a drainage canal that has become the focus of a controversy involving the park, the U.S. Air Force, Metro-Dade County, the State of Florida, and local environmental groups. All parties seem to agree about one issue: The water in the canal isn't as pure as Evian. After that, just about everything is in dispute, including the volume and type of pollution in the canal, where it came from, and who's going to clean it up. Even the waterway's name is contested. Most people call it the Military Canal, as it's been known for decades; the name is even chiseled on a stone bridge across the waterway. But these days air force authorities demur, insisting upon calling it the Outfall Canal.

By the end of next year, the federal government expects to turn over nearly two thirds of the 2900-acre air base to Dade County for redevelopment as a civilian enterprise, which will include a commercial airport, industrial parks, a shopping center, an apartment complex, and a golf course. In preparation, the air force is in the midst of a massive pollution cleanup; Homestead is one of 26 air force facilities that are getting scrubbed down as part of a nationwide base-conversion program, with the air force's handling of this particular location receiving special scrutiny. The site, which is expected to cost about $25 million to clean, has been designated a "model base" by the U.S. Department of Defense, says Humberto Rivero, environmental coordinator for the Air Force Base Conversion Agency. For the most part, according to local environmental regulators, the process is moving along swiftly and thoroughly.

Unfortunately, the amicability stops at the banks of the Military Canal.
Essentially a glorified drainage ditch, the waterway was dug in the first half of the century as part of Dade's flood-control canal system, and was intended to keep the base dry during heavy storms. Rain falling on the base drains into a channel, known as the Boundary Canal, which encircles the site. The Boundary Canal, in turn, empties into the Military Canal -- which flows straight into Biscayne Bay.

State and Metro environmental officials have long suspected that something more than storm water is draining into the Military Canal from the base. Over the past several years, Metro-Dade scientists have conducted water-quality and sediment tests in the canal, revealing suspiciously elevated levels of pollution, including trace metals such as cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and zinc. These metals, if they enter the food chain in high enough concentrations, can have a harmful effect on the natural ecosystem and human health. According to officials at Metro's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), the level of contaminants increases upstream, toward the base.

In an internal memo earlier this month, the chief of DERM's natural resources division noted that the Military Canal's pollutant levels were more like those found in canals located in North Dade's industrialized areas than what turns up in other canals in South Dade's agricultural areas. "It is likely the base is among the sources of the contaminants observed in the sediments," wrote division chief Susan Markley. As a caveat, she added that DERM's routine testing techniques aren't designed to determine specific sources of contamination but are only to detect contaminant levels.

Air force officials bristle at the slightest suspicion that the base is polluting the surrounding waters. In fact, they won't even acknowledge that the canal is, technically speaking, contaminated. "The presence of chemicals doesn't automatically mean 'contamination,'" asserts Rivero, who is coordinating the cleanup. According to the air force's definition, Rivero explains, 'contamination' means the presence of chemicals "that pose a risk to human health and the environment." This, he points out, is not the case in the Military Canal.

The air force has done its own sampling in the Boundary and Military canals A more than a million dollars' worth of tests, according to Rivero. While the tests revealed a link between pollutants in the perimeter canal and the air force base, they showed no connection between the Military Canal contamination and the base. Tests conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this past spring, Rivero adds, confirmed the air force's findings. Thus, air force officials have agreed to eliminate the pollution from the Boundary Canal but refuse to do any further work on the Military Canal. Rivero says that if the Military Canal is sullied, the pollution was caused by runoff from surrounding farmland, or by the actions of illegal waste dumpers unloading automobiles, tires, and pesticides into the gully.

Scientists and engineers from DERM and the South Florida Water Management District don't fully trust the air force's conclusions. They fault the testers' methodology, specifically their control site and the limited number of samples taken. They say there's a need for more accurate testing, and they want the air force to do it. "We say that impurities exist in the system significantly above natural levels," explains Rick Alleman, senior environmental scientist for the water management district. "Now, whether that presents a threat to biota or human health, I would say that possibility exists. But we don't have sufficient data to say one way or the other, and that continues to be the issue."

Adds Markley: "What we have is an indication that there has been some contamination arising from human-related activity, and it warrants further consideration."

Two weeks ago, the military and DERM held a lengthy meeting in an attempt to resolve the dispute. "We wanted acknowledgement of responsibility from the air force," says James Carter, a DERM hazardous-waste engineer who is monitoring the cleanup for Metro. But the air force wouldn't budge. Carter predicts that the sides will take their argument to a dispute-resolution expert.

Though representatives of Biscayne National Park have so far remained on the fringes of the debate, environmentalists are concerned about the potential impact of Military Canal contamination on the bay. "What is the risk to the park and the natural environment out there?" asks Don Chinquina, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society who has been meeting with all parties in the dispute. "It's a big unknown." The 181,500-acre park, most of which is underwater, is a spectacular natural resource of fragile coral reefs and diverse wildlife. It is also a major economic resource for Dade, attracting about 500,000 boaters, divers, and other sightseers annually.

"The park is not necessarily out after any one individual to lay blame on," says Bo Dame, Biscayne's resource-management chief. "What the park wants is to determine if there is a problem and to determine the source, whether that source be the farmer up the road or the military base or some guy who dumps his car there in the middle of the night." No agency has yet tested the water at the confluence of the Military Canal and the bay. "I think we're at a point where we all need to pitch in to do the testing," Dame offers.

The controversy seems not to pose a threat to the planned transfer of the base; DERM and the air force have agreed to treat the Military Canal separately from the rest of the cleanup operation. Still, a resolution to the dispute is sure to carry a hefty price tag, no matter who does it. An engineering consultant for Metro has estimated that cleaning up the canal will cost between $1.45 million and $1.83 million.


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