The Hound of the Baskervilles would love the Old South Dade Dump. The overgrown landscape, hidden from the view of motorists traveling SW 248th Street, its northern boundary, resembles a lumpy, fogbound moor. It's actually a smoldering, snake-infested bog stuffed with 900,000 tons of buried tires, household garbage, and chemical waste. Scores of subterranean fires send smoke wafting through cracks in the spongy earth. At a distance -- up to six miles away, in Princeton, Naranja, and Goulds -- the acrid vapors incite dozens of citizen complaints each year.
Pollution inspectors say the 260-acre landfill on the edge of Biscayne Bay ranks high among Dade's nastiest locales A a good spot to steer clear of. Yet on April 2 county commissioners voted to buy the dump from its eight private owners for $3.1 million. Even the man who brokered the land deal, assistant county attorney Thomas Goldstein, acknowledges that "if we had negotiated on the basis of the property's true current value, the sellers would have had to pay us to take it off their hands. It's an unbelievable mess."
It's also an open-air museum of pollution history, which helps explain why taxpayers now own it.
In 1952 wetlands were still called swamps and marshes. Trash and garbage and junk hadn't been dubbed municipal solid waste. It was then that county workers and South Dade residents began dumping refuse into their neighborhood saltwater tidal marsh. By 1967 Dade County had leased the entire site from a group of absentee owners for one dollar per year. In return for its temporary use of the land until the owners wanted to take it back, the government promised to raise it six to seven feet above sea level A by filling it in with washing machines, car bodies, kitchen waste, dead livestock, sewage sludge, construction and demolition debris, and incinerator ash. Some of downtown Miami's prime waterfront property had been created the same way.
Unlike high-tech landfills built in the 1980s and 1990s, the Old South Dade Dump had no plastic liner underneath it. There was no collection system to capture leachate, the contaminated juice that oozes out of rubbish repositories. Nothing was done to stop rainwater from percolating through the dump and carrying pollutants into the adjacent canals toward Biscayne Bay. Nor was there any mechanism to siphon off the combustible methane gas generated by rotting garbage.
"Lo and behold, little fires started springing up," says Goldstein. They burned on and off for years, then steadily since 1983.
A study by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1977 A a year before the dump stopped doing business A discovered high soil concentrations of iron, lead, manganese, and phosphorus. A decade later, when four sampling wells were installed, they showed groundwater contamination by ammonia. While not toxic to humans, ammonia harms aquatic life. The landfill is adjacent to Biscayne National Park, an underwater preserve. The Goulds Canal that borders the dump was Florida's first designated manatee sanctuary.
In 1991, facing fines from state and federal environmental protection agencies, six of the eight landowners sued. Dade County, they claimed, didn't live up to its agreement to create buildable lots and leave the land in "a clean, satisfactory condition." Instead of enhancing the value of the property, local government had obliterated it, and along the way failed to protect the owners against liability for the dump operation.
The landowners also accused the county of plotting to use its powers of condemnation to pick up their property for a song after systematically ruining it. They said they thought $20,000 per acre would be a fair price.
After five years of litigation and court delays, the two parties were still fiddling while the landfill smoldered. Two weeks ago they reached a settlement out of court, quickly approved by county commissioners. All eight individual and corporate owners of the dump will get an average of $13,500 per acre. Taxpayers get a new piece of real estate that only the Toxic Avenger could welcome.
Neither side believes there's much to crow about.
To the erstwhile owners, $13,500 per acre is barely fair. DEMOC N.V., one of the companies that figured in the lawsuit, bought two parcels of dump property in 1983 for $171,300. The settlement gives the company $272,143, or about a 4.5 percent average annualized rate of return on investment. Hardly hefty.
"All of our clients approved the settlement, but it obviously is a compromise," says attorney Toby Prince Brigham. "The settlement was the outcome of uncertainty, and the possibility of further years of litigation. The sad thing that I'll never understand is why it took this long to accomplish. And I don't know why the county isn't as hard on itself as it is on other people who contaminate a piece of land."
Goldstein says the county is doing the right thing by finally purchasing the Old South Dade Dump. There is little dispute about the government's role in ruining the land, and officials acknowledge that a judge probably would have awarded damages to the private owners, eventually.
At first glance, the $3.1 million acquisition represents a chance to finally do something about the polluted Old South Dade Dump. The county is the only interested party with the resources to respond effectively. But the realistic prospects for doing so are daunting.
In April 1994, a county bureaucrat named Paul Lasa was asked by his bosses to estimate how much it would cost to clean up the wayward swamp. He took into consideration the fact that garbage in the landfill runs anywhere from five to twenty-five feet deep. He figured in $900,000 for a trench to capture leachate, and another million dollars for a deep-water injection system to cleanse contaminated groundwater. Plus the $64-per-ton cost of hauling refuse to a new landfill.
Scenario one, which involved removal of all solid waste from the dump and the administration of a five-year water treatment program, would cost a staggering $140 million A about what some planners think it would cost to build a new grand opera house, theater, and symphony hall on bayfront property in downtown Miami.
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A less ambitious scenario calling for an impermeable cap over the landfill and treatment of the underground water contamination for twenty years, would cost $94 million, according to Lasa's estimate.
"Your first thought is to dig all this stuff out of there and transport it to a modern landfill where it won't do any harm," says Lasa, a division chief in the hazardous waste section of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management. "But when you get down to looking at the numbers, you start backing away from that into other strategies."
Lasa envisions a third option for the Old South Dade Dump, one that involves reclaiming waste from the lowest-lying areas, recycling usable materials, and then piling the remaining refuse on as small a plot as possible. The pile could be covered over with earth and gravel. This approach was successfully implemented at another old landfill at 97th Avenue and NW 58th Street. That project was cheap: Only $20 million.
Meanwhile, the fires burn, the ammonia leaches, and homeowner Pam Perry sounds skeptical in her kitchen, a mile from the dump. "Sometimes you can't even breathe," she says. "It's not even a normal garbage smell. It's the smell of burning tires. It smells like rubber or plastic. It's not like your house is full of smoke, but the odor is there. Everywhere.