Du Pont Estate: Coconut Grove's Buried Poison
At the end of a leafy, dead-end street in Coconut Grove, past actor Christian Slater's new digs and the sprawling grounds of Hollywood director David Frankel's home, sit mounds of rubble. Just a few days ago, this was one of Miami's grandest, most envied private homes: the five-acre, 26,000-square-foot du Pont estate.
But the house was bulldozed to make way for minimansions. On the property's north side, St. Gaudens Road slopes gradually down to Biscayne Bay. At the road's end, beneath a mangrove-shaded guardrail, are coarse, glittering bits of melted glass, tiny clumps of metal, and other telltale toxic detritus of Miami's long-closed municipal incinerators.
The du Pont estate was built atop an ash dump.
"It came from the incinerator over in the [West] Grove," says Dr. John C. Nordt III, an orthopedic surgeon and a lifelong Coconut Grove resident. "That's certainly no secret."
Like the Grove's Blanche Park, which recently became a national scandal when inspectors found that tons of dangerous ash from the "Old Smokey" incinerator had been dumped and left for decades where children play, the former du Pont estate is poisoned. The property was recently sold at a monstrous discount after a survey showed arsenic, barium, lead, copper, and other toxic contaminants at levels far above what's considered safe. In all, environmental engineers estimated the site contains as much as 100,000 tons of tainted soil buried as deep as 18 feet.
Nordt grew up a stone's throw away, in the two-story Mediterranean Revival recently purchased by Christian Slater. As a boy, the surgeon recalls trucks rumbling down the street, perhaps two or three times a week. They backed up to a low ridge overlooking the property and dumped their loads. "We kids collected the melted glass to play hopscotch," he says.
Back then, few people understood the threat to human health: "They dumped in the low-end neighborhoods, and they dumped in the high-end neighborhoods," he says. "They really didn't discriminate against anyone."
Nordt's family lived on the street for decades. He says the dumping continued throughout the 1950s and stopped shortly before the du Ponts acquired the land and built their mansion in 1964.
The road is named after its first notable resident, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an acclaimed sculptor of the Beaux-Arts generation once honored with his likeness on a 3-cent stamp. Saint-Gaudens — who also designed the rarest coin in U.S. history, the $20 "double gold eagle" — acquired the swampy, mangrove-covered lot in the early 1900s, passing it to heirs upon his death in 1907.
The property was later acquired by Dr. Tracy Haverfield, a well-known Miami neurosurgeon who, according to Nordt, welcomed the city's unwanted incinerator ash as fill that eventually transformed the acres of wetland into dry, buildable land.
Willis du Pont, an heir to the chemical fortune, needed 35 railroad cars to ship enough sandstone from an Ohio quarry to build the 33-room mansion he would name Baymere on the site. The home's sleek midcentury-modern design, while modest by today's garish standards, was widely acclaimed for its grandeur and detail. Perhaps, Nordt quips, only the legatee of an industrial chemical concern could feel at peace living atop a toxic dump.
In 1967, the home was featured in one of Miami's most sensational crimes. On a chilly October night, five gunmen broke in; tied up du Pont, his wife, their two young children, and two servants; and ransacked the place. The robbers had good manners but bad grammar, du Pont's wife told a Miami News reporter.
After dining on roast beef and soda pilfered from the kitchen, they escaped in the family's red Cadillac convertible with a fortune in rare coins that was among the world's most valuable private collections. (Over the years, many of the coins have been recovered, including, in 2004, an exceedingly rare 1866 silver dollar valued at close to $2 million.)
Badly shaken, the du Ponts fled their beloved Baymere for the relative safety of Palm Beach County. The estate changed hands, eventually making its way into the bowels of a vast real estate portfolio owned by an oil-rich sheik from the United Arab Emirates, who, neighbors say, hasn't been seen in years.
In June 2012, the property was put up for sale for $22 million. Early this year, a prospective buyer conducted a routine environmental assessment. The results were startling: arsenic, barium, lead, copper, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and other toxic contaminants at dangerous levels. One test sample found arsenic at more than 25 times the concentrations the county deems significant enough to warrant remediation.
In all, roughly four of the five acres, including a filled portion jutting into the bay, contain buried toxic ash. Evidence suggests the material extends beyond the property's boundaries, perhaps onto abutting lands.
Meanwhile, groundwater tests show carcinogenic plumes that most likely extend into Biscayne Bay. The identity of that prospective buyer remains a closely held secret, and what came next is unclear. But it is apparent that neither buyer nor seller informed the county of the obvious risks to human health and the environment.
Records obtained by Miami New Times show that a legion of attorneys, consulting engineers, building contractors, and other professionals knew about the contamination as early as last March, but nearly three months passed before the findings were forwarded to Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), the county agency charged with pollution oversight and control.
Why the wait? Though that too is unclear, the environmental engineers, in their 366-page assessment report, described the cumbersome consequence of reporting the results and counseled the hiring of an attorney.
So far, neither the consulting engineers nor DERM have pinpointed the contamination's origin. DERM's longtime environmental chief, Wilbur Mayorga, says the county is pocked with former dump sites — some legal, some not. Where they are, he says, is often a surprise.
Improbably, the house opened to the public in late August for a weekend garage sale featuring tacky, overly padded furniture and kitschy bric-a-brac. The caretaker told a visitor the sheik was making way for a new owner, later identified by neighbors to be a 40-something Venezuelan ex-pat named Isaac Perez.
In late September, the property sold for $11.4 million — just under half the already-reduced asking price. A newly formed corporation — 3500 St. Gaudens LLC — holds the deed. State records list Key Biscayne's Isaac R. Perez as the corporation's manager and president and Odette Perez as vice president. According to news reports, two siblings of the same names are heirs to a Venezuelan oil fortune (their uncle was a founder of OPEC). They fled to Key Biscayne in 2002 after their alleged involvement in a failed attempt to overthrow President Hugo Chavez.
Attempts to reach the Perezes were unsuccessful. Neither brokers involved in the deal nor South Miami contractor John Kovacs of Ikon Builders, which commissioned the environmental assessment reports, were available for comment. And two environmental attorneys who helped navigate the regulatory maze, John McNally and Kerri Barsh, also did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment.
In any case, the owners — whoever they may be — have until November 13 to submit a plan detailing how they intend to clean up the soil and protect the groundwater. Given the tests results, that remedy will likely require removal of the contaminated soil — a ghastly expensive, loud, and time-consuming undertaking; groundwater protection may be even more challenging.
But a preliminary report, submitted to DERM in September, suggests a less costly remedy. The buyer, the report says, intends to build five luxury residences with driveways and other impermeable surfaces that will limit toxic exposure. Elsewhere, two feet of clean fill will cap the contaminated soil, rendering it safe.
For now, though, DERM is demanding tightly restricted access to the walled-in property. But on a recent weekday morning, both drive gates on the property's north side were open, allowing a visitor to roam freely across the toxic landscape. In the exposed soil, churned by demolition of the once-grand residence, the unmistakable mix of incinerator ash sparkled in the sunlight.
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