After weeks of wrangling, a park protest, and the recent involvement of an attorney, the infamous Merrie Christmas Park toxic soil pile is finally on its way out thanks to funding promised by an anonymous donor.
"I'm pretty sure it'll happen in the next day or two," Commissioner Marc Sarnoff told Riptide Tuesday evening. "If not by the end of the week, then by the middle of next week."
Ken Russell, the resident who has been leading the effort to remove the soil, yelped in excitement when told by Riptide of the plans. "Yes! Wow!" he exclaimed. "If that's really going to be removed ... that is such a victory for what we're trying to accomplish."
But Sarnoff's statement came after a protracted struggle between the city and residents -- led by Russell -- upset at the way the park cleanup was being handled. A section of Merrie Christmas was closed last September after inspectors found toxins like arsenic, cadmium, and lead in its soil, and in July the site was quietly labeled a brownfield site, placing a potential black eye on property values.
In late September residents learned that the city, in its plan to reopen the park, intended to redistribute and cover the contaminated soil instead of actually removing it. "We all just flipped out," Russell told Riptide in October. Concerned about potential health consequences and property values, Russell galvanized neighbors and mounted an effort to stop the redistribution, including a protest in a clean section of the park.
The city agreed to halt the soil redistribution efforts, but for weeks a massive pile of contaminated dirt already turned up by bulldozers has sat covered by white tarps, as neighbors have wrangled with the city over funding of its removal. At a public hearing on October 16, Sarnoff told residents that they'd have to come up with $50,000 of the $175,000 removal cost themselves, although a few days later the residents' required contribution was dropped to $5,000.
Russell balked -- the neighbors already pay taxes, he said, and shouldn't have to fund the proper cleanup of a public park -- and contracted an attorney to help navigate the process, leading to a prickly break in communication between Sarnoff and Russell.
"I think a good result has been reached, despite the way it was reached," the commissioner said.
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The donor who came forth recently to cover the difference has so far wished to remain anonymous, Sarnoff said, "but we have the commitment."
After learning of the pending removal, Russell said he was thankful to both Sarnoff and the City of Coral Gables, who also contributed funding, and added that the removal was an important milestone: Besides the pile, residents also want the city to drop the park's Brownfield designation -- a technicality that allows officials wide leeway to deal with the toxic waste without neighborhood input -- and they're also concerned about a county distinction related to the cleanup that could negatively affect property values.
"This is one step in what we're looking to achieve," he said. "A safe park that doesn't affect our home values and our health."