Beckham Must Pay for Toxic Waste Cleanup at Stadium Site, Swing-Vote Commissioner Says

Like everyone watching last Thursday's marathon at Miami City Hall, Commissioner Ken Russell was miffed that David Beckham's group had released so few specifics about plans before asking the city to hand over Melreese Golf Course for a massive soccer stadium and retail development.

But one piece in particular worried Russell: the massive layer of toxic incinerator ash buried under the course that, as New Times reported last week, could cost millions to clean up. Russell was in a unique position to understand the challenge — he'd been elected to office after leading community activists in Coconut Grove to clean up toxic ash under local parks there. So he knew the process could go sideways very quickly.

"The magic word I wanted to hear is that the city would bear no responsibility for the cost to clean up," Russell says. "I realize that's a big ask."

In the end, Russell forced a vote to delay a decision on the proposal until this Wednesday. He has a litany of other requests for the team to address before the new pitch this week — including profit sharing and a living wage for workers at the facility — but the toxic waste issue hit closest to home.

Miami's toxic ash problem dates to the 1920s, when a trash incinerator nicknamed Old Smokey was built in an area of Coconut Grove where mostly black residents lived. Despite decades of complaints from neighbors, the incinerator was closed only in the '70s after white children began being bused to the neighborhood for school. In the meantime, untold tons of ash contaminated with dangerous compounds such as barium, lead, and arsenic were buried under Miami's parks.

Russell became involved in community activism when his Grove neighbors learned that Merrie Christmas Park was contaminated. Despite promises from local officials to fix the problem, Russell and his neighbors were horrified to learn that children were still being exposed to potentially harmful levels of toxins at the park.

"As I learned coming into office, there are all levels of remediation that are acceptable to [Miami-Dade's Department of Environmental Resource Management]," Russell says. "There's a bottom-of-the-barrel approach, which is what we had at Merrie Christmas for years. And that won't be acceptable at Melreese."

A thorough cleanup won't be cheap. When Miami-Dade completed work on the much smaller Grapeland Park, which sits directly adjacent to Melreese, the effort required moving 86,000 tons of tainted soil at a cost of $10 million. Yet before last Thursday's meeting, Beckham's partner Jorge Mas would commit to paying for only "reasonable" cleanup costs.

Russell says that's not good enough. "The fact is, it's already remediated right now to a level that's satisfactory for its current use as a golf course. So we're not in an urgent situation," he says. "They're the ones seeking a change of use for the site that would require a cleanup, so it makes sense they should pay that cost."

After speaking with Mas, Russell says he believes that agreement will be on the table Wednesday — although Beckham's team will leave open the possibility of ditching the site if the cleanup is too expensive.

"The assurance I have is that they'll either fund that cleanup themselves or they'll walk away," Russell says. "At no point can they come back and say, 'Hey, it's your land, you're the landlord, this is your problem.'"

Russell also believes Beckham's team is open to some profit-sharing from the development, though his living-wage request might be a bigger ask. "This needs to become a normal part of the conversation," he says. "We have such a large income gap in South Florida, and when it's a city-controlled property, we have to ensure people can live on their wages. We owe that to residents."

Beckham's group will return to city hall Wednesday at 10 a.m. for the latest pitch in the five-year stadium saga. And Russell could well decide whether or not this site goes through — a potentially heavy burden in a county that recalled its mayor in the not-so-distant past over another stadium deal. But Russell says the Marlins Park debacle won't scare him away from at least giving Melreese a fair shake.

"It's easy to just say no to things, but it's harder to do your homework and see if there's the potential for a good deal for residents," he says. "The ghosts of the past are in the past. The new mayor's administration has studied the history, and they don't want to repeat it. We can study it and move forward instead." 

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