Normally around this time of year, Esther Alfonso-Luft's Virginia Key business would be renting hundreds of kayaks, paddleboards, and mountain bikes to adventuresome residents. The Virginia Key Outdoor Center would be hosting monthly slack-line meetups and moonlight paddling events.
Now she's nearly being pushed into bankruptcy because City of Miami garbage collectors have dumped "three to four acres" of stinking, congealing, leaking debris from Hurricane Irma onto the key, she says. The trash piles have grown taller than her building.
"There's construction debris, drywall, and I'm pretty sure I saw a refrigerator there," she tells New Times. "It all changes very rapidly. There's all sorts of plastic buckets, bags that look like they’re filled with something heavy, doors everywhere, lawn furniture, couches — anything you'd expect to find on the side of the road."
As of 2007, Virginia Key — where Miami's segregated, "colored-only" beach could be found during the Jim Crow era — was as "desolate as a moonscape," according to the Miami Herald. But a seven-year, volunteer-led restoration effort turned the island off the Rickenbacker Causeway into a scenic getaway for outdoorsy types. A Visit Florida clip posted online (featuring Alfonso-Luft) shows people meditating on paddleboards and biking through trails next to some large iguanas. The key is also home to one of the few mountain-biking courses in town. How much of that remains under the gigantic trash pile is unclear.
"They're turning this park into a mud pit," Alfonso-Luft says. "This is a public space! Whatever they’re leaving behind here could be a toxic nightmare. I hope when the next mayor comes in, I hope he’ll make some significant changes."
Ken Russell, the City of Miami commissioner whose district includes Virginia Key, said he's aware of the growing debris pile but stressed that city waste officials have promised him they'll begin sorting out the mound by next week.
This year, Russell said, the city changed its garbage-collection rules after reanalyzing Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines. Most debris left outside on the streets included both plant waste and trash items such as couch cushions and broken fences. The city decided to pick everything up without sorting it, use Virginia Key as a "FEMA transfer station," and then sort the garbage from the tree limbs after dumping everything in a massive pile. The trees will then be turned into mulch and compressed.
"I have been promised by admin that next week will begin removal of non-tree waste to a final landfill," Russell wrote to New Times yesterday evening. "And NOT leaving it on Virginia Key."
He said he didn't blame Alfonso-Luft for being upset — and added he's working on a way to get people bicycling through the park again in areas that are safe and free of debris and trucks.
According to Miami Today, local activists, including environmentalist Blanca Mesa, complained to city officials at the last Virginia Key Advisory Board meeting September 26.
"The number one focus is removing the storm debris from the streets, and debris from the yards,” Parks Department Director Kevin Kerwin responded, stressing again the park will be only temporarily used as a landfill.
According to the Miami Herald, other debris "staging sites" are located across Miami-Dade County, including one similarly garbage-stuffed area in Hialeah. But while environmentalists are upset that the FEMA sites might be infecting the soil, politicians have also been hit with a flood of complaints that city streets aren't getting cleaned up fast enough. Those grievances, naturally, have led to extra mounds of trash being flung into temporary landfills as fast as possible.
City officials also have a third concern: cash. FEMA reimburses city governments for storm-cleanup costs, but to qualify for emergency funding, cities must adhere to a highly specific set of rules and codes.
Still, activists say the decision to place a temporary landfill on Virginia Key, of all places, seems particularly upsetting. Alfonso-Luft says she's worried that any sorting or remediation process could take weeks, months, or even longer. And in that time, debris-collection trucks are churning over park land while random bits of waste leak into the soil.
"There's a smell of decomposing vegetation en masse," she says. "I’m sure they’ll clean up, but temporary can mean five years. In the meantime, I can't operate."
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Her eyes fill with tears as she describes telling her employees to go home each day because the public park is virtually useless now and police block access to many formerly open areas.
"I'm sensitive that the debris has to go somewhere," she says. "But why not mulch in progress?" She questions why the city would agree to dump everything in a single location and sort it later — especially when residents are capable of sorting their own trash every other week of the year.
"In doing so, they've created an even greater hazard," she says. "And I’m paying for it more than most. The hardest thing was telling my staff that I couldn’t give them work. It's not because my business was damaged; if I fail because I had a bad business plan, that's on me. But that's not why I'm failing. The area used to be stunning, and now it's horrible. And the pile will be bigger by tomorrow."