Old Incinerator and New Cancer in Coconut Grove

On the days when the municipal trash incinerator known as Old Smokey fired up its furnace, Delphine Bennett could sit on the porch of her shotgun-style house and watch the flames flicker from the chimney. On warm, dry evenings, the escaping embers ignited brush fires in empty lots nearby. More than once, she recalls, the roof of a neighbor's home caught fire.

"Sometimes you had trouble breathing; the kids were coughing. It was so bad you'd have to come inside and close the windows," says Bennett, now 77, her voice raspy and frail. "Soon as you hung the clothes on the line to dry, they'd be covered in soot."

For nearly 50 years, Miami's trash incinerator on the corner of Jefferson Street and Washington Avenue clouded the air of West Coconut Grove. Before it was shut down as a public nuisance by court order in 1970, countless tons of toxic ash emerged from its furnace. Some of it was piled in great mounds outside its entrance, where it remains, covered in dirt and asphalt; much more was hauled away and buried in the quarries that supplied limestone for Miami's early building boom.

And still more of the ash escaped through the chimney and enveloped the neighborhood in great toxic clouds of billowing smoke.

Bennett, for a decade Old Smokey's closest neighbor, raised a family just a few steps from its gates. Her breathing has been short and labored ever since. Back then, doctors called it asthma; today, it's acute chronic pulmonary disease. And though never a smoker, she often breathes through a respirator. Other problems persist: A few years after the incinerator closed, she woke up one morning and her sense of smell was gone, never to return. Doctor's don't know why. A few years after that, a cancerous polyp was removed from her nostril.

"I knew something was wrong about all that smoke," says Bennett, now living in Miami Gardens with her daughter, Wanda. "But nobody wanted to say nothing. Nobody wanted to cause no trouble. But thinking about it now, well... there was a reason they didn't put Old Smokey in the white part of town."

There is no proven link between Bennett's medical condition and her exposure to the toxic byproducts of the Coconut Grove trash incinerator. State and local officials say there is no evidence to suggest Old Smokey posed any threat to public health during its years of operation or since then, even among residents living in closest proximity.

But after the discovery last year of deposits of the long-buried ash, which has led to the closure of a half-dozen city parks, New Times tracked down former neighbors of the incinerator. Many have stories and medical complaints similar to Bennett's: asthma, respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, and forms of cancer linked to toxic exposure. While public health officials have yet to investigate these complaints, one independent study has identified an abnormally high rate of pancreatic cancer — statistically greater than expected — in West Coconut Grove in the vicinity of the incinerator.

That study, by a team of epidemiologists from the University of Miami, suggests a link between this so-called cancer cluster in the West Grove and nearby drinking wells contaminated with arsenic, which is one of the principal contaminants of incinerator ash and a known carcinogen.

Despite mounting evidence that Old Smokey might have poisoned its closest neighbors, City of Miami officials — the incinerator's owners and operators — have little to say. And while they and others quietly search for the tens of millions of dollars it will likely cost to clean up the incinerator ash buried throughout the city, taxpayers might be on the hook for a far bigger tab when the victims of Old Smokey take their claims to court.

When Coconut Grove's municipal trash incinerator opened in 1925 at a cost of around $65,000, the community was remarkable for its contrasts: Grand estates of seasonal gentry lined Biscayne Bay while the dense urban neighborhoods nearby were filled with Bahamian settlers who had arrived here to supply cheap labor for the fast-growing city.

The incinerator's placement — at the western edge of what was often known as the "Colored Grove" — was never questioned. And few people, white or black, understood the health risks associated with burning trash.

Indeed, as late as the 1950s, at least one wealthy landowner on Saint Gaudens Road in the affluent, white part of town welcomed vast loads of incinerator ash onto his waterfront estate to fill in a mangrove swamp. (The toxic soil was discovered last year, and the current owner, a wealthy Venezuelan expat, is paying millions to clean it up.)

"Nobody liked [Old Smokey] being in our neighborhood," says 60-year-old Andre Thompson, who was born and raised a block away in a two-bedroom home made of Dade County pine on the corner of Washington Avenue and Brooker Street. He recalls the smoke, thick and acrid. His eyes burned; on bad days, his lungs were sore from coughing.

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David Villano