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After Years of Inaction, City of Miami Starts to Clean Up Arsenic-Infested Douglas Park

A little more than two years ago, Douglas Park, a ten-acre green area just north of Coral Gables, closed after City of Miami officials found elevated levels of arsenic, lead, barium, and other hazardous materials in the soil. And then, nothing happened. 

Month after month, the park sat dormant and overgrown. A cadre of fed-up residents finally stormed a commission meeting in December to complain that kids were breaking into the park and playing in the contaminated soil. Something had to happen.

Yesterday the activists won: Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district encompasses the park, held a groundbreaking ceremony to officially kick off the city's cleanup bid. A foot of topsoil will be removed, Russell said, and the city will lay a barrier to keep the contaminated soil underground. New, clean soil will then be laid on top.

"Not counting the years it's taken up to now, it should only take a few months," Russell says. "It's been a long time coming."

This being Miami — a city that pretty much boasts the motto "You built that on what?" — it turns out Douglas Park, along with a number of other parks around town, had been built right on top of a toxic ash dump. In fact, the land had been a former quarry used to dispose of incinerator ash from the nearby "Old Smokey" trash incinerator in Coral Gables.

After an August 2013 test revealed the park's soil was potentially cancerous, the city shuttered the park that November.

"Whenever this was conceived, it's crazy someone thought this was a good idea," Russell says.

And so the park sat. In that time, nearby resident and former city administrator Ralph Rosado, 43, says multiple businesses around the park, dependent on foot traffic from parkgoers, closed.

"There was an ice-cream place, a pizza place, another restaurant," Rosado says. "They were all dependent on people going to the park. Senior citizens couldn't get exercise either."

Rosado says holes were eventually torn in the fencing around the park, and people broke in to exercise. "There were holes in the fence right next to the signs that said, 'No Trespassing,'" Rosado says. "It either needed to be totally closed or totally open. Nobody knew the strategy to reopen it."

So Rosado, who grew up using the park and now has three kids of his own, went door-to-door throughout his neighborhood and rounded up a group of 50 concerned residents, who swarmed a December 2015 city commission meeting in green shirts emblazoned with the phrase "All We Want for Christmas Is Our Park."

It caught the attention of Russell, who says he entered politics after reading a 2013 New Times story about Miami's history of toxic parks. Before running for office, Russell himself had led a grassroots campaign to reopen Merrie Christmas Park in Coconut Grove. "Before that," Russell says, "I was selling surfboards."

Russell says that after just months in office, he was glad to see a new group of activists so concerned about the state of the city's local parks. So he pushed the city's parks and capital improvements directors to develop a strategy to finally fix Douglas Park. Eventually, the city hired an environmental remediation firm to fix things.

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"People needed activities for the kids and youth in the area," Russell says. "Anecdotally, there were neighbors seeing more and more kids getting up to no good. There was also a polling location for voting that had to close. During the last election, a lot of people were confused where to go. Half were sent in one direction; half were sent in another."

After Douglas Park reopens, Russell says, the city will then work on building an entirely new community center on the grounds, complete with an "internet zone" and tons of added community rooms. 

Rosado, meanwhile, is ecstatic that the park will finally reopen in a short period of time. He was beginning to think the park might be jinxed.

"I was taking my kids there before the park closed," he says. "Coincidentally, a tree was hit by lightning. I was beginning to think the park might be cursed."

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