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A Short History of the Most Chemically Contaminated Sites in Miami

An iguana sunbathes on the golf course at the Melreese Country Club.
An iguana sunbathes on the golf course at the Melreese Country Club.
Melreese Country Club/Facebook

A 2010 study from the University of Florida showed Miami-Dade is one of the most toxic places in the world — but not because of politics and corruption. The county has some of the most contaminated sites found anywhere, and a New Times story published this week shows toxic soil continues to be a pervasive problem.

Homeowners of a community west of Aventura are suing over chemical contamination of their properties and claim information about soil pollution was hidden from them. The lawsuit alleges that developers of Aventura Isles didn't disclose an ongoing soil cleanup project and that Miami-Dade County placed usage restrictions on the property because of elevated levels of arsenic and dieldrin, a neurotoxic pesticide.

Contaminated soil has been found all over the county, and often local governments know about it for years before residents find out. Here are five chapters from Miami-Dade's sordid book of environmental contamination.

1. Old Smokey, Miami's municipal trash incinerator, poisoned a segregated Coconut Grove. For nearly 50 years, Miami's trash incinerator on the corner of Jefferson Street and Washington Avenue clouded the air of the West Grove. A court order shut it down in 1970, but not before it belched countless tons of toxic ash and covered the neighborhood in smoke. Former neighbors of the incinerator reported medical complaints including asthma, respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, and forms of cancer linked to toxic exposure.

2. Miami parks have a history of contamination. In 2013, New Times reported that Blanche Park, Merrie Christmas Park, and Douglas Park turned up traces of dioxins, arsenic, barium, lead, and other deadly toxins, presumably from Old Smokey ash deposits. Fern Isle Park was used as an illegal dump site by Miami work crews for years. Soil tests at José Martí Park turned up dangerous levels of arsenic and other toxic materials, likely accumulated from decades of boat building and repair on nearby properties. The list goes on and on. The parks were closed for cleanup, and the City of Miami quietly labeled some of them brownfield sites, limiting community involvement in decisions about cleanup.

3. A Miami water park was built to cover up a toxic dump. Grapeland Water Park, seen from the Dolphin Expressway at NW 37th Avenue, offers a 13-gallon swimming pool fed with groundwater, and tests of that water showed high arsenic concentrations. New Times reported in 2013 that the City of Miami, which owns and operates the park, spent years ignoring demands from county environmental regulators to monitor the groundwater. At the time, county records showed no sampling reports of the groundwater had been filed since 2010.

4. The site of David Beckham's proposed soccer stadium sits on a pile of toxic waste. More than 86,000 tons of tainted soil was hauled away from the sites of Grapeland Water Park and the Melreese Country Club to the tune of more than $10 million in 2006. Toxic materials remained in the soil almost ten years later.

In October 2015, Miami-Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management hired a firm to drill soil samples and test water at Melreese to see if it was contaminated. The company found clear evidence of toxic ash. To build on the golf course, developers would have to undertake a massive and expensive cleanup, New Times reported last year.

5. Contaminated soil was found at an Overtown apartment building with a history of health hazards. In January 2016, an environmental crew dug up ten rusty barrels of garbage buried two feet below ground on the property of an apartment building at 1710 NW First Ct. in Overtown. The soil surrounding the barrels was found to contain high levels of potentially dangerous chemicals, including arsenic, dieldrin, barium, and carcinogenic polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons — a group of more than 100 chemicals released by burning coal, oil, gasoline, trash, tobacco, and wood. Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrote in a July 2016 memo to Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who represents the district in which the apartment building stands, that "due to documented soil contamination... soils may present a potential direct exposure risk." But residents of the building said no one told them about the problem.

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