Tony Mena remembers the exact moment he discovered his home and family were being poisoned. "It was the perfect day to be outside," he recalls, the kind of beautiful January afternoon that compels snowbirds from around the nation to flock to South Florida. This was Mena's first winter in his new home in the Redland district of South Miami-Dade. For the shy, soft-spoken, 28-year-old workaholic, few pleasures equaled barbecuing in his backyard, the chief attraction of the property. His land stretched for more than two acres and included a stand of 110 mango and avocado trees. Toward the front of the property sat a small two-bedroom house, a little cramped for the fact that Mena and his wife, Isabel, shared it with her parents. Still, away from the long hours logged at the offices of the architectural firm where he worked, this was his oasis.
That Saturday, January 17, 1998, Mena had planned to grill up some ribs and chicken for his extended family, which included his sister Arlene and both sets of parents, Antonio and Leonor and Jesus and Cristina. All were born in Cuba. Tony and his family had come to Miami in 1980 upon the release of his father, Antonio, a political prisoner, from Castro's jails. Isabel and his in-laws arrived in 1994. The families had been united by marriage and within a few months would welcome the next generation, a grandson, Tony Jr.
The crack in Mena's American dream began some time after high noon, when the wind shifted and began to blow from the northwest. Along with the afternoon breeze came a foul smell that the taciturn Mena describes as being like "rotting garbage." Almost a year later, a county environmental inspector trained to document such aromas would jot down his professional appraisal: "This odor resembles a combination of vomit, rotting wet vegetative mulch, and an occasional eucalyptuslike scent." Its foul, suffocating stink drove Mena and his guests inside. "They were talking more about the smell than the barbecue ribs," he remembers.
Mena had a fair idea of the odor's origins. During the past several weeks he'd noticed white solid-waste trucks in his neighborhood. Recently he'd watched them line up on the other side of the railroad tracks across a field that abutted the back of his place. The trucks methodically dumped a light brown material in piles that grew larger every day on the property, which fronted SW 167th Avenue.
"I don't like the feeling I'm getting from this," Mena thought, when he first noticed them. "It looks like landfill."
That Monday he went by the site and fell into conversation with a worker who identified himself as Ricardo. The man told him they were storing soil at the site to sell. When Mena asked him what the material consisted of, Ricky replied, "Soil and wood." He then assured Mena he needn't worry, for it was "environmentally safe." But the exchange didn't make the homeowner feel better.
In an account of the incident he would later write, Mena states, "After talking to him, I was very worried, because they had [so far] only developed a small area [of their property], and the bad odors at times were [already] all over the [neighborhood]."
The next day Mena went about trying to gather real information. As an architectural assistant, he had access to runners who work the county bureaucracy for firms like his, delivering plans and accessing information. He asked one to check whether the property had all its permits and licenses. The next day the plan runner called and told him she couldn't find anything on the site. So on Wednesday, he went to the Stephen P. Clark Government Center on NW First Street. It would be the beginning of almost four years of constant begging and cajoling to try to convince county bureaucrats to do their jobs. Along the way he got a truer taste of how Miami-Dade politics really works than any citizen would care to have.
First Mena stopped at the property appraisal office, where he says he was informed that the land was being used to "grow vegetables"! He next went to the zoning department; they bucked him on to the zoning processing section. He learned the property was zoned as industrial, but that no zoning application existed on it. When he told them what was happening, they suggested he report it to the county's Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM), because there was no zoning application for the property. Up until that point, Mena had been operating in familiar territory. As someone who had fulfilled nearly all the requirements to be a licensed architect, he knew the ins and outs of the county building department. But his experience with Miami-Dade's environmental regulators was next to nil.
During his visit to DERM that day, he would speak with four different people. After going through an inspector, he saw Gwladys Scott, another inspector who told him the site was on DERM's radar and that the department was working with the owner. When Mena inquired about who that was, he was told, erroneously, that it was the Montenay Power Corporation, a private company that processes Miami-Dade's garbage and trash at a county-owned plant called the Resource Recovery Facility. Scott then passed Mena on to Nahum Fernandez, the DERM area officer for Mena's neighborhood.
Fernandez told Mena he didn't know exactly what the material consisted of since lab reports had not come back. "At the time I realized that I probably knew more about the composition of the [soil] than DERM did," Mena would write later in his log.
Fernandez took him to a complaint desk, where Mena filed a protest against the awful odor and illegal dumping on the property.
The next day he returned to the site to see if he could gather more information. Standing on the railroad easement outside the property, he queried Ricardo about the name of the company for which he worked. This time Ricardo called his supervisor. The man asked Mena for his name, but Tony wouldn't give it. "I told him I was a concerned neighbor," he recalls. Mena says the supervisor then accused him of trespassing and threatened to call the police. Mena pointed out that he was standing on the right of way, and the supervisor ended the conversation. The battle lines were drawn.
It would take awhile for Tony Mena to figure out exactly who was behind the assault against his home, and even longer for him to comprehend the apparent sway his unexpected adversary seemed to hold over the machinery of county government. His epiphany would come as the problem of nasty smells turned into a very real threat of arsenic in his water supply.
After calling Dennis Moss, his county commissioner, and Robert Johns, the DERM official charged with overseeing the site, Mena learned the company behind the dumping was named Ouster, owned by wealthy trucking magnate Tomas Andres Mestre. The name meant nothing to him, although it seemed to inspire fear among the minor county bureaucrats with whom he dealt. "As soon as I would mention Ouster, I would get bad faces, and they wouldn't be as helpful as other times," he claims.
The turning point in his understanding, Mena relates, came after reading articles in the Miami Herald and New Times. The two stories, one about a dubious recycling contract in the City of Miami, and the other about conflicts involving the cleanup of a landfill in Homestead, both detailed a disturbing pattern whereby the trucking mogul appeared to trade on political influence to land lucrative contracts from government agencies, which sometimes proved quite costly to taxpayers in the long run. For each story the Cuban-born Mestre directed reporters to a publicist rather than answer questions himself. (Today he and his minions are even more elusive, refusing to comment whatsoever on anything concerning Ouster, despite repeated requests. "There is nothing to talk about beyond the record," insists Mestre lawyer Andres Rivero.)
Mestre reaped much of his fortune after Hurricane Andrew. In 1994 the county's Department of Solid Waste Management awarded him a no-bid contract to haul away debris from the devastating storm. The Sun Sentinel revealed that Mestre's company, Resource Recovery Services, had charged $11.50 per ton, three times the going rate, then subcontracted the work to independent truckers and paid them $3.75 per ton. Taxpayers could have spent significantly less if the work had gone out competitively. Mestre's publicist blamed the markup on the costs of "project management," "loading," "insurance," and "storage."
What may have aided Mestre's business interests are his close ties with Mayor Alex Penelas's political machine. He hosted lavish fundraisers for both Penelas's 1996 and 2000 campaigns. For the former he personally donated $1500, according to the Miami Herald. His patronage extended to allies of the mayor as well. In June 1999 Mestre hosted a fundraiser for the mayoral campaign of former Homestead mayor and current County Manager Steve Shiver. The gala, held in Mestre's opulent $1.8 million home in the Redland, netted Shiver about $25,000. It came at the same time one of Mestre's companies was trying to win a piece of a city contract to clean up and develop an old landfill. (Shiver denied a conflict of interest because Mestre himself did not personally contribute to his campaign.)
With Ouster, Mestre's cooperation with county officials, to the detriment of the local citizenry, would rise to new heights. It's a charge that county officials dispute.
None of the scandals detailed in previous stories would be as egregious as the environmental harm Mestre caused in Mena's neighborhood. And no government effort on his behalf would be quite as bold and active as that of Andrew Wilfork, director of the county's Department of Solid Waste Management. Wilfork's machinations would be unknown to the neighbors who tried to fight off the scourge brought to the Redland. Even though Wilfork, a 30-year county veteran, provided the rationale and some of the money for the Ouster scheme, he left it to county environmental regulators at DERM to deal with the mess that resulted. In the thousands of pages of documents in the solid waste department's Ouster files, there appears to be little concern on Wilfork's part for the neighbors during their years of complaining.
Wilfork insists his department never regulated Ouster and blames DERM for allowing Mestre to stockpile the Fines for too long. "The failure was allowing him to continue to operate," he says. "They should have shut him down years ago."
The idea behind Ouster was simple enough: Take something that nobody wanted and turn it into gold. The county delivers about 1,206,000 tons of garbage and trash per year to the Montenay-run, county-owned Resource Recovery facility in North Miami-Dade. Some of it gets burned. Some gets recycled. Once it enters the gates of the facility, the rubbish largely becomes Montenay property.
One stream of waste that comes to Montenay is classified euphemistically as "yard trash." It's composed of debris from trees and lawns as well as some other materials collected curbside. When the trash comes into Montenay, big items are separated out. The smallest material is shredded. From this comes a potentially toxic soil-like substance called "Fines." It was this material that Mena saw delivered to Mestre's property. (Wilfork insists it is "clean material" but is at a loss to explain why it has tested for arsenic and toxic metals.)
Montenay needed to get rid of the Fines as cheaply as possible. The county had an interest in finding a use for the material rather than letting it take up valuable landfill space. Additionally Wilfork frequently touted the fact that finding a home for the Fines would satisfy a general Florida recycling goal of 30 percent, though solid waste resource recovery administrator Paul Mauriello admits, "You don't really get anything for meeting it."
Mestre offered a solution that would answer both the needs of the county and Montenay while making him a ton of money in the process. (Since the Waste King refuses to answer questions about his exact intentions, they must be divined from interviews with county officials and an examination of the public record.) Here is how it was supposed to work: Montenay would pay Mestre about $3 a ton to take the Fines. Mestre would then bring the material to Mena's rural neighborhood, where he would stockpile it on a parcel of land conveniently zoned for industrial use. Through a natural process, the stuff would decompose slightly, ratcheting up its organic content. Then Mestre would turn around and sell it to area plant nurseries as "miracle" soil. (In 1997 Mestre found a university professor who vouched for the use of the material for mulching and compost, but a year later DERM disallowed it for residential use because of the concentration of toxic metals found in samples.) To date it is unclear how much, if any, of the Fines Mestre managed to sell to nurseries.
For the scheme to work, there were a few problems to overcome, but Tomas Mestre knew he had the county politicians and bureaucracy behind him. What nobody expected was how fiercely Redland residents would fight back.
"Whenever there was a question of interpretation, it seemed like the county ruled in favor of Ouster," complains Mena.
As one example among many, Mena notes that all evidence indicated Mestre's site was a composting facility, yet county officials refused to label it as such. The county determination proved vital, since a composting facility under the site's zoning designation would have been illegal.
"A composting facility is trash, garbage, fruits, and vegetables and all that good stuff," insists DERM's director John Renfro. "Let's not get silly about it; this is not a composting facility."
His point man on Ouster, Robert Johns, heartily agrees. Johns lists as proof all the extra regulations needed to operate a composting facility that DERM never made Mestre, the noncompost composter, perform. Yet the company was less oblique.
In Ouster's operation plan submitted to DERM on May 18, 1998, the company wrote, "[T]he primary purpose of this site is to act as a temporary storage location of potting soil-like material as well as a location at which additional composting material is nourished, enhancing the quality of the material for use in agricultural, commercial, and industrial applications."
Ever accommodating, DERM decided that the best way to keep the foul smells that emanated from Ouster down would be to treat the material like compost: separated into rows, kept at certain temperatures, and turned periodically. Indeed neighbors believe the stench was the worst when Ouster personnel turned the piles, exposing the more decayed bottom layer to the air. Despite its near-perfect imitation of a composting facility, county regulators dubbed it a "soil storage facility." Even some solid waste management department employees admit on background that Mestre's operation is a novelty. "There are plenty of composting facilities," one man says, "but I've never heard of a soil storage facility before."
There are no existing regulations for "soil storage facilities." Technically Renfro was right: Ouster was not a traditional composting facility. Yet its operations so closely mirrored one that it would have been common sense to regulate it as such, residents argue.
The helpfulness of county bureaucrats didn't end there.
On January 7, 1999, solid waste director Andrew Wilfork sent a memo to Renfro telling him that Ouster didn't need a bond to cover the county financially if problems arose and the material needed to be removed, but the company refused or was unable to do so. Instead Wilfork pledged that the solid waste department would take responsibility "for the ultimate disposition of this material."
Wilfork defends the decision. "It was clean material, so I didn't see the need for a bond," he says.
On April 23, 1999, Wilfork tried to strike an agreement with Montenay that let Ouster off the hook for any potential contamination in Mena's neighborhood as well. It read: "The county shall only accept environmental responsibility for surface, subsurface, or ground water contamination which is directly attributable to the storage of Fines at the contractor's recycling site(s)."
Nine months later Christopher Mazzella, the county's inspector general, would write a harsh memo to then-County Manager Merrett Stierheim, criticizing Wilfork's agreement as giving too much power to Ouster and questioning whether the director had the authorization to enter into it. The IG's intervention stopped Wilfork's effort. (Wilfork claims he stopped it on his own. At County Manager Shiver's request, the IG further investigated Ouster's relations with the county in July of this year, concluding that while inferences of preferential treatment may be unfair, the county should not add to the perception by considering positions which seem to benefit Ouster at the expense of the county.) In his memo Mazzella pointed out what should have been startlingly obvious to Wilfork, who has six years at the helm of his department. The IG wrote: "The county should not contractually agree to more liability than legally need be."
Between his agreements and the IG memo, Wilfork hatched other plans on behalf of Mestre. When Ouster couldn't find anyone to buy their "soil-like" material, Wilfork in January and February 2000 tried to force another county contractor, Brown and Caldwell, to take the Fines themselves as fill for a different county project. Brown and Caldwell balked because Ouster was asking for a fee that was roughly 50 percent more than the cost of virgin material already approved by DERM.
Wilfork also tried in March, April, and May to push through bid waivers for hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the Fines from Ouster. The efforts ended after the inspector general's office got involved. Deputy Inspector General Alan Solowitz advised the county to test the Ouster material to see if it was indeed a "miracle" soil. "It is the OIG's concern that should the county pay for Fines, then it should pay a reasonable price, and it should get the expected performance out of the product," he wrote. "In other words the county should get what it paid for."
In the end Wilfork succeeded in finding a way to buy the material from Mestre by using a proviso in the county's contract with Montenay. Beginning in May 2001, Miami-Dade County started purchasing Ouster Fines through Montenay to serve as cover for the South Miami-Dade landfill. Initially the county paid $3.60 per ton to purchase the Fines, though in October a cost-of-living increase raised the price to $3.70. As of October 31, the county has acquired 102,638 tons for about $369,500. It is expected the department will buy all the Fines Mestre has left, according to Wilfork's assistant, Paul Mauriello.
Wilfork claims that the material is actually cheaper than what the county normally uses for landfill cover and will save taxpayers close to a million dollars. "We have a good deal," he insists.
From April 24, 1997, to August 2001, Ouster hauled 226,546 tons of Fines from Montenay, according to the county solid waste department. At $3.10 per ton, Mestre made about $7 million. From December 1997 to May 2001, the Fines Ouster trucked went to Mena's neighborhood. By the end of August 2000, DERM had determined that Mestre still had 130,740 tons onsite in the Redland. As of press time, the agency says there are about 43,000 tons left.
Mena and other residents point out that as taxpayers they essentially paid for the Fines twice -- first when Montenay (which is subsidized by the public) paid Mestre to haul it away and again when county solid waste bought it back for the landfill cover. County bureaucrats insist that because the Montenay facility is privately run, it is not public money that pays Mestre to haul it away. Thus the taxpayer is not paying Mestre twice for moving the Fines around. "It comes out of Montenay's bottom line," notes Mauriello. "They are responsible for disposal of the material."
As the Ouster problem continues to fester, the distinctions between who owns what and where responsibility begins and ends could well become the subject of future litigation.
This past September the National Academy of Sciences released a report showing that the federal Environmental Protection Agency had underestimated the cancer risks of arsenic in drinking water. The report forced a reluctant Bush administration to accept more stringent standards for the toxic metal than the current 50 parts per billion. It concluded that at even 3 parts per billion, the risk of bladder and lung cancer is between four and ten cancer deaths per 10,000 people. The new standard is likely to be the 10 parts per billion originally proposed by the Clinton administration. For soil, which is less dangerous, the maximum concentration of arsenic allowed at industrial sites is 3.7 parts per million.
Ground water sampled from beneath the Ouster site in South Miami-Dade has shown concentrations of arsenic as high as 380 parts per billion, 38 times the new standard (although the "arsenic plume," or trace penetration pattern, is relatively small). In the Fines sitting atop a small portion of Mestre's 23-acre property, samples have indicated arsenic levels as high as 8.5 parts per million. Additionally there is a plume of ammonia beneath the ground that seems to cover at least several acres. To date neither the arsenic nor ammonia has migrated into the well water of neighbors.
"No matter how these people cut this shit, it's bad news in the soil and in the water," asserts John Wade.
Wade is a retired environmental compliance coordinator who put his expertise to work trying to help Mena and those who live near the Ouster site. In 1996 the tall and wiry Wade retired from 25 years at Florida Power and Light, a career that included 15 years as the head of the company's chemistry department at the Turkey Point nuclear reactor. He and his wife, Pat, who sits on a local community council form part of a group of South Miami-Dade activists associated with a prominent civic group in the area, the Redland Citizens Association (RCA), which tries to protect agriculture from development. Mena had gone to the RCA for help in 1998 to challenge Ouster's zoning. Their efforts to halt Mestre's use of the land for Fines storage through challenging zoning technicalities failed at the community council and then failed again on appeal before the county commission in December 1999.
John Wade didn't get involved with the struggle until just before the commission hearing, yet his technical background would prove invaluable. He rummaged through the voluminous files at DERM and grasped the danger of the junk "soil" stockpiled in Mena's neighborhood. "I started to realize this stuff was nasty," he says.
DERM officials contend the Fines were safe, if stored for a limited time, and in manageable quantities. Ouster did neither.
"It really was very similar to soil," insists John Renfro, the DERM director who still doesn't seem quite clear on what exactly the material is. "This soil is supposedly shaken out of yard trash, trees, branches, and that kind of thing."
Renfro insists DERM scientists tested the material before allowing it to be dumped and found it wasn't "dangerous stuff." Seven months after Ouster began dumping, the county's Environmental Quality Control Board determined the Fines was not hazardous waste despite its traces of heavy metals like lead and arsenic.
If it was so safe, how does Renfro explain the high levels of arsenic in the ground water beneath the site today? "Things happen," he says. "Maybe they brought in a hot load one day. Who knows?"
Wade ridicules this theory. "The arsenic concentration has remained virtually the same in all the samples of the material," he says. "It is not one load that did this."
Wade discovered in the files that DERM knew fairly quickly that tests of the material showed lead and arsenic. The results prompted Renfro to forbid residential use of Ouster's "soil-like" material in March 1998. And a month later DERM would conclude that there existed a potential for the material to leach into the ground. But DERM officials insisted the problem could be managed -- explaining that they never thought the material would be at the site long enough for it to soak into the ground. "We were thinking it was supposed to be a depot," explains Robert Johns. "They were having marketing problems, so the piles were [growing] a lot larger than we anticipated, and they stayed there a lot longer."
By the fall of 2000, a terrible pattern had set in. DERM would hit Ouster with a number of minor enforcement actions that seemed to have the effect of a fly buzzing in the ear of an elephant. As the notice of violation letters piled up, Ouster's high-priced leadership would promise compliance. The two sides would then meet and enter into an agreement that allowed Mestre to keep the Fines coming. At no point did DERM levy a fine against Mestre, though it was within the department's rights to do so. Despite clear language in the agreements that gave Renfro the power to shut down Ouster for failure to comply, he refused to step in and avert the disaster.
"We have to base our decision on science," Renfro insists. "We would have acted faster if there was an [immediate] danger to the [neighbor's] wells. If we stopped every place that showed some contamination, I would have to shut down every business in Dade County."
It didn't seem to matter that DERM registered more than 60 odor complaints from residents, validating seventeen days of documentable problems (a number Mena and residents say is laughably low). Nor, until recently, would it carry enough weight for Renfro that Ouster was routinely late with reports and sampling. What is most galling to Wade and residents is that when DERM discovered contamination beneath the Ouster site in September 2000, it didn't bother to inform residents. Wade learned about it while perusing the DERM files six months later. "I was shocked they didn't tell anybody," he says. "It was a big damn secret."
Renfro defends the decision. "There was no reason to [tell them] at that time," he insists. "I have to go by the book. If there is a problem, let's see how bad it is and where it [exists first]."
As the result of a subsequent agreement with DERM, Ouster installed what would eventually become thirteen monitoring wells inside and outside the property to make sure the arsenic and ammonia does not migrate into wells that are used as the primary source of drinking water for residents. At least three of those wells, outside the Mestre property, had to be installed by DERM officials themselves because Ouster took too long.
Today 50 feet upstream of Mena's pump house is a monitoring well erected by the county to tell if a plume of poison is drifting down to him. Mena points out the metal plate that marks the spot. Then he looks at his well house nearby. "By the time [arsenic] arrives here, though, it will be too late for me," he notes, meaning that the contagion will practically be in his well water. (This past weekend the state Department of Environmental Protection informed Mena that it had found lead contamination almost twice the legal limit in his well water. Mena's wife is four and a half months pregnant.)
The Menas drink and cook with bottled water just to be safe. Tony's in-laws Jesus and Cristina no longer incur the expense. They moved out around October 2000. "From the beginning they were opposing me standing up for my rights," recalls Mena. "They didn't want any problems, and they were afraid of retaliation."
His parents felt the same way. "Everybody was telling me to sell the house and move away," says Mena. After a few heated arguments, the topic was banned from the house. He believes that both sets of parents were influenced by a lifetime in Cuba, but Mena wouldn't be cowed. "If I sold this property and moved somewhere else in Redland, this could happen there too," he says. "You can run, but you can't hide."
This past April Tony Mena and John Wade were joined in their battle against Mestre's menace by another homeowner from the area, Ellen Perez, a self-employed antiques dealer. She and her family live on the other side of the Ouster property from Mena. Although conscious of the problem, she thought it would be resolved. "I realized the mountain was getting huge," she remembers. "Something was wrong with this picture."
She and Tony Mena would sometimes follow Mestre's trucks to try to figure out where they went. They would even stand off site to take videos or photos of the piles. This, they say, made the Ouster people really angry. Perez claims she was personally threatened with jail by one of Mestre's guys. "Ouster never attempted to communicate with us in any positive way," she declares. "All they've done is threaten."
In her case Mestre did more than simply threaten; he has made Perez pay dearly for defending her home. As such the waste tycoon seems to be signaling that he plans to deal with the fears of neighbors and the environmental problems at the Ouster site with a legal jihad.
When Perez found out about the arsenic, she grew worried. "I was very upset and concerned about the safety of my family and my property value," she says. "It wasn't just a smell that kept us indoors; [now] there was something toxic there."
She felt obligated to get involved and started a letter-writing campaign to federal officials. Perez also worked to get the word out about the situation, printing up flyers and talking to the media. It was here that she made a slight misstep. Mestre pounced.
In particular Perez is alleged to have made statements to local newspapers the Homestead Sun and South Dade News Leader complaining about illegal arsenic limits in her well water. While Ouster had contaminated the water beneath its own site, contamination has not migrated to Perez's wells. Perez says she misread the complicated technical form DERM sent her and then the newspapers further misquoted her. "I made an honest mistake in misinterpreting the scientific language," she admits.
The legal action began first against the Redland Citizens Association this past June 7, when Mestre's lawyer, Andres Rivero, fired off a warning letter to the RCA claiming the organization undertook "an aggressive campaign of harassment, defamation, libel, and tortious interference with the business relations of Ouster." The letter also named Mena, Perez, and both John and Pat Wade as responsible for similar actions and demanded the alleged behavior stop.
Mestre clearly had a public-relations disaster on his hands and was using every effort to legally muzzle his critics. Less than three weeks later, on June 25, Rivero filed suit against Perez for her comments in the local papers. In his lawsuit Rivero wrote, "In her strong desire to cause the closing of the site, defendant has intentionally and with express malice made false statements about Ouster and its business activities for the purpose of harming Ouster to force it to close the site."
Perez has been forced to spend thousands of dollars to defend the lawsuit as Rivero has taken over eight depositions for a trial scheduled for April 2002. "They are the ones who have polluted and violated environmental laws, and I am the one who is getting sued," complains Perez. "A lawsuit like this could cripple [my family]. Every time there has been a deposition, it has cost us money."
Perez's lawyer, Robert Bissonnette, describes the suit as an attempt to silence his client in a classic example of what is colloquially referred to as a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).
Mestre's opposition to Perez has not simply taken time and money from her. In late October she wound up in the hospital for chest pains, which she says her doctor attributes to stress that Perez connects to the lawsuit.
Still she remains unbowed. "We will never shut up," Perez vows.
In a remarkable about-face this past October 2, DERM director Renfro sent Mestre a letter ordering that the Ouster site be closed at once. The letter further stated: "Upon receipt of this notice immediately initiate removal of all soil-like material on the subject property and complete said removal within ninety (90) days of receipt of this NOTICE."
Renfro says he finally grew weary of Ouster's noncompliance, particularly when the company was unable to install all the monitoring wells DERM required as quickly as the county wanted. "We gave them more than adequate chances to comply," he admits. "When we had to go in there and put in our own wells I said, That's it.'"
Mena and an unlikely band of citizen activists had finally won. But with plumes of arsenic and ammonia beneath Mestre's property, fear continues today in the neighborhood.
Four days prior to Renfro exercising his unexercised powers of enforcement, Mayor Alex Penelas sent a memo to County Manager Steve Shiver. (Tony Mena had first complained to the mayor's office about Ouster in 1998.) In the interim Mestre trucked hundreds of thousands of tons of Fines to the Redland. Penelas himself met with Mena and a group of residents twice, the first time last August. But now, finally, something was being done.
Penelas's note began: "As you know, for quite some time I have been deeply concerned about the numerous health related complaints from area residents regarding the operations of the Ouster Corporation's facility located at 21001 SW 167th Avenue."
The mayor then wrote that DERM "apprised" him of its cease-and-desist order, as if the decision wasn't a political one as many believe. It's more likely that his fundraiser Mestre's arsenic contamination had simply proved too much of a liability. (Although Penelas spokesman David Perez promised a comment from the mayor, it was not forthcoming at press time. In the past Penelas has denied any connection between fundraising and contract awards.)
Penelas continued: "[The] plume of contaminated ground water poses significant health risks to the surrounding residents who depend on wells for their potable water supply."
The neighbors could be excused for questioning the sincerity of Penelas's concern after so many years of inaction, though most seem plain grateful that their nightmare might be coming to an end. "This is America," protests Ellen Perez. "We shouldn't have to deal with this. There are supposed to be laws to protect us."
The struggle, though, is far from over, and not just for Perez, who continues to be mauled by Mestre's mouthpiece, Andres Rivero. The cease-and-desist order mandates that Mestre clean up the site and eliminate the contamination that literally looms over the neighborhood's water supply.
"Furthermore, evidence indicates that your facility's onsite operations have resulted in soil and ground water contamination that requires correction of the violations and restoration of said ground and ground water in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 24, Miami-Dade County Code," reads Renfro's letter.
If the material is trucked away, eventually the ammonia that is caused by the breakdown of organic waste will dissipate, opines John Wade. Not so the arsenic, which leaches out of the soil and bonds with the limestone underneath. Once it is saturated, it then leaks into the ground water. If the soil is not removed and the limestone scraped, there is the possibility that arsenic could enter the ground water over a long span of time. "They are going to have to clean up the ground as well as the water," Wade warns.
Wade thinks that if Mestre had been allowed to collect Fines at the site unabated, eventually the Ouster property would have qualified for federal designation as a superfund site, a government program that provides money to locate, investigate, and clean up the nation's contamination problems.
DERM's Robert Johns says that by January 2002, when Mestre must have all the Fines removed, Ouster also is obligated to submit a report on how it will clean up the site. He expects the company to make a case that simply monitoring the plumes to see if they go away on their own will be sufficient. Cleaning the Ouster site might not come cheap. Perhaps, with Penelas's newfound respect for the Redland environment and, more important, the vigilance of the inspector general's office, Tomas Mestre might be forced to pay to do it anyway. Then again, if the past is any indication, it is more than likely the public will foot the bill in the end.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.