Miami-Dade Found Toxic Chemicals In Overtown Soil, Didn't Bother Telling Residents

A plastic fence meant to keep people away has been trampled.
A plastic fence meant to keep people away has been trampled.
Photo by Jessica Lipscomb

Tranicia and Tramecia Scipp are 32-year-old identical twins. They grew up on NW Eighth Street and attended Booker T. Washington High School as teens. All their lives, people have had trouble telling them apart.

"They say I'm meaner and she's the nice one," Tramecia deadpans.

Both women are single moms — Tranicia has two sons and a daughter, ages 7, 11, and 14. Tramecia is raising two daughters, a 15-year-old and a 9-year-old. The sisters pay $450 and $500 for one-bedroom apartments in a dilapidated building at 1710 NW First Ct. in Overtown.

This past January, just a few dozen feet from the bedrooms where the twins' children sleep, an environmental crew discovered ten rusty barrels of buried garbage. The soil around the barrels was found to contain high concentrations of potentially dangerous chemicals, including arsenic and barium.

Strangely, no one bothered to inform the residents.

"They don't tell us anything," Tranicia says.

Far from an anomaly, contaminated soil has been discovered all over Miami, including in prominent parks like Bayfront and Merrie Christmas, which reopened last year after a $1.2 million cleanup project. A 2010 study by the University of Florida found that soil in urban Miami had an excess concentration of 16 pollutants, and at a level higher than in other large cities like Chicago and London.

At the apartment in Overtown, the contaminated dirt is only the latest in a series of safety hazards and indignities the residents have endured in recent years. Indeed, the discovery raises questions in the minds of some environmentalists about whether officials would have behaved differently if the building were in a more affluent area.

"What's going on here seems very different from what occurred in, say, Merrie Christmas Park," says Anthony Alfieri, head of the Environmental Justice Clinic at the University of Miami law school. "One is in a wealthy community, the other is in a low-income community. The question is, is there disparate treatment because of race or disparate treatment because of class?"

The two-story apartments on NW First Court were built in 1951. The floors are covered in worn-out vinyl tiles, and tenants frequently complain about moldy bathrooms and leaky ceilings. The 20 units have no central air conditioning, and the mostly lower-income, minority residents must provide their own wall units and appliances or pay higher rent to have necessities like a fridge provided.

In 2014, the City of Miami filed a public nuisance lawsuit against the building's owners, Denise and Abraham Vaknin. City attorneys claimed the New Jersey couple had ignored multiple code violations for trash disposal and fire safety since purchasing the building in 2005, and said residents like the Scipps were "having their health, safety, and welfare threatened" by the unsafe structure. The court eventually sided with the city, and in June 2015, attorney Linda Leali was appointed to oversee the property.

Leali's monthly reports show at least some effort to make repairs to the building, along with eight other properties owned by the Vaknins. But the conditions made her job difficult. Less than a month into her tenure as receiver, a fire broke out in the apartment next door to Tramecia's, burning a hole through the wall of her closet and filling her unit with smoke. The cause of the fire was never determined, though the twins say they heard rumors of faulty wiring.

This past January, the buried garbage was discovered during a survey of the property by a prospective buyer. Records show an environmental engineering company excavated ten concrete and metal barrels from a two-by-20-foot area along the building's rear wall. Inside them were cans, glass, and plastic, all trash that someone at some point had buried in the barrels two feet beneath the ground.

The soil samples were sent to a lab for testing, and in March, the results came back. The dirt was found to contain high concentrations of arsenic, barium, dieldrin, and carcinogenic polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the last of which were three times the acceptable residential level set by the state.

"Due to documented soil contamination... soils may present a potential direct exposure risk," Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrote in a July memo to Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who represents the district where the apartment is located.

Yet after the find, the tenants say no one — not the county, the property manager, Gimenez, or Edmonson — informed them of any kind of problem.

"Nothing, not at all," says 79-year-old Steve Clark, who lives in a unit on the first floor.

PAHs can be released through vehicle exhaust, coal, cigarette smoke, or, in this case, the improper disposal of waste, according to environmental scientists. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says extended exposure to those compounds through air or skin contact can lead to cancer.

The other substances can also affect human health. Arsenic exposure can lead to skin problems, while exposure to dieldrin — a compound used decades ago as an insecticide — can cause headaches and dizziness and, in some situations, destroy blood cells. A study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency says children from low-income and minority families have a higher risk of exposure to hazardous substances because they spend more time playing on contaminated soil than wealthier children.

But Wilbur Mayorga, pollution control chief for the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), says the soil contamination doesn't represent a serious hazard due to its isolated nature and because most of the chemicals still fall within the county's acceptable range.

Gurpal Toor, a University of Florida professor who studies soil and water contamination in urban areas, reviewed the environmental assessment from the building and agrees that residents likely weren't affected. "I do not see how this would affect human health directly, as these contaminants are buried in the soil and most of these are not volatile," Toor says. "The only way someone could be exposed is if they are spending a lot of time in the back with bare hands, growing/gardening, or if the dust gets inside the homes and they inhale a lot of it."

Still, neither the county nor the court-appointed receiver could explain why residents weren't told the chemical-tainted soil had been found beneath their building. The receiver, Leali, said only that there was no requirement to do so. "It was my understanding that we were complying with what DERM has requested," she told New Times.

Mayorga says information about the contamination can be found on the department's website. Asked why residents weren't directly informed, he says DERM is "always looking to improve our communications."

It's unclear how many residents might have come in contact with the soil since the contaminants were discovered. No sign was posted about why the area behind the building was cordoned off. And a fence made of a yellow plastic material similar to the rings that hold together six-packs of soda wasn't installed until June 10, nearly six months after the barrels were found. When New Times visited the apartment in late August, the fencing had fallen down and appeared to have been trampled on.

A court hearing has been scheduled for October 6 to approve a $10,000 contract with a company that will remove 25 tons of soil from beneath the building and backfill it with clean dirt. The contaminated soil would be carted off to a landfill, and more samples would be sent to a lab for testing.

Mayorga says those results will show if there was any impact on the groundwater. Because the residents are on municipal water and not a well, their drinking supply was not affected, he says.

Informed of the contamination by New Times, residents expressed frustration but not surprise. Clark, who has lived in the building for about two years, says tenants are rarely informed about the state of the building or its management.

Through it all, he has tried to be patient with continued assurances that leaks and mold will be addressed. "I just wait until they complete what they said they were going to do," he says on a recent morning. "I'm trying to find a better place to live."

Within the past few weeks, Tranicia and Tramecia Scipp have put their names on a waiting list at a newer apartment that offers income-adjusted rent just a block away. They hope to be able to move out by the holidays. "We're making the best of it," Tranicia says. "It is what it is."

Alfieri, the UM law professor, says he and a group of students have drafted legislation that would beef up requirements for government officials to notify residents about hazardous conditions in their neighborhoods.

"Right-to-know laws in Florida are inadequate to meaningfully inform residents about environmental hazards in their communities," he says. "And in part as a result of the Jim Crow history of the Miami metropolitan area, and in part because of discrimination by municipal and county officials, minority communities have been disparately treated."

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