If you drive around certain parts of Doral or Medley, you might just catch a whiff before you see it: the imposing, wretched-smelling landfill some call Mount Trashmore.
Since 2016, the Doral odor-control hotline has received thousands of complaints from residents who say the smells are so foul, they can't stand to be outside of their homes. The stench drifting from the 170-acre trash mound only worsens after a fresh rain or on particularly hot or windy days.
Residents and activists raised hell last year when they heard that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) planned to issue a permit that would allow Waste Management, the company that operates the landfill, to vertically expand the trash heap, raising the maximum height from 265 feet to 340 feet. The City of Doral filed an appeal with the DEP to block the permit from being issued. But the expansion is moving forward, and advocates and residents continue to fight it.
Last Thursday, the progressive advocacy organization New Florida Majority and the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice sent a letter requesting a meeting with DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein on behalf of residents who are concerned not just by the trash mound's smell, but also by chemical odors they worry could be dangerous for their health.
"Residents have complained of gas and chemical-like smells that indicate the landfill also emits harmful substances," the letter reads. "For example, callers to the odor hotline have described the smell as being 'like acid,' 'like methane or other gases,' like 'paint fumes,' or like 'a heavy chemical...in the air.'"
The city announced last month that it had reached a settlement agreement with Waste Management, which agreed to implement certain odor-control measures in exchange for the city withdrawing its challenge to the expansion permit. The agreement says Waste Management will stop the southwest side of the landfill facing Doral from being filled with any more waste and will install a new "vapor-based odor control system" there. The company also promised two "misting cannons" to neutralize the smell of trash as it's placed in landfill cells near the city.
Joanne Pérodin, New Florida Majority's climate-justice program manager, says she's concerned about what chemicals residents might be exposed to because of their proximity to the landfill.
Doral hired an environmental consulting firm last year to test groundwater, surface water, and soil samples at and near the landfill over 33 days. The firm determined the landfill and the nearby Miami-Dade County Resources Recovery Facility, an incinerator that processes thousands of tons of waste a day, are to blame for the smells. The tests detected hydrogen sulfide in the air and sulfide and ammonia in groundwater — but not at excess levels.
Pérodin says the measured levels of hydrogen sulfide, a gas with a telltale rotten-egg smell, are enough to cause eye and skin irritation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Exposure to the gas can irritate the respiratory system and cause nausea, headaches, and delirium, among other symptoms.
"Many Doral residents complain of physical and health symptoms such as asthma and respiratory issues; itchy, watery eyes; headaches; and nausea," the letter to DEP reads.
Pérodin says there are also concerns about what chemicals might be used for odor mitigation and the potential of an increased volume of chemicals used to account for the landfill expansion.
"If you have an existing landfill site that is emitting chemicals that are known to cause harm to human health, elevating this site means you're increasing the concentration of those chemicals being released in the environment," Pérodin explains. "If the proposed solution from this agreement is to use other chemicals to control the odor because you're dealing with a bigger volume of waste, you'll be dumping chemicals on chemicals to control the odors."
Pérodin says New Florida Majority and Earthjustice are asking the DEP to include the community in decision-making, to install more air-quality monitoring stations, and to do more frequent, longer-term air-quality testing in the communities around the landfill to get a more accurate snapshot of chemical presence.
Pérodin says the community's concerns shouldn't be taken lightly.
"Human health should not be put on the backburner," she says. "At the end of the day, it's the health of your residents that is being put on the line."
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.