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.

He and his brother played in and around the mounds of ash outside the furnace. Like all the neighborhood kids, he attended George Washington Carver School only one block to the west, separated from the incinerator by the width of the all-purpose athletic field still in use today. When the bay breezes blew in from the east, ash flew through the schoolhouse windows and coated the desks. Thompson's aunt, who lived in the same house, died of pancreatic cancer shortly after Old Smokey was closed. She was barely 50. A cousin died not long ago of lung cancer; another cousin has been diagnosed with it. Both lived for years in the Washington Avenue home before Old Smokey was shuttered. "Nobody knew [the smoke and ash from the incinerator] was something to worry about," Thompson shrugs.

Today, people are plenty worried. The byproduct of burning trash is a highly toxic ash typically containing dioxins, furans, hydrochloric acid, benzo[a]pyrene, and heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury — all known to cause a variety of cancers and other serious illnesses.

As a rule of thumb, 50 pounds of trash in those days would produce about ten pounds of ash, of which perhaps a pound would escape through the air in what's known as fly ash. It's this airborne stuff, especially from early-generation incinerators, that's most harmful to human health. Study after study has confirmed the risk for incinerator workers and nearby residents. A 1996 report in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showed that residents living in close proximity to an incinerator in Northern Italy were nearly seven times more likely to die of lung cancer.

A study published in the British Journal of Cancer showed increased rates of lung, liver, stomach, and colorectal cancer among people living near incinerators. A study in Environmental Science & Technology showed an effect on respiratory function. Other studies link exposure to incinerator toxins and an increase in congenital defects, as well as thyroid and other hormonal conditions.

In the early '50s, Deloris Patterson Bain and her eight siblings lived a block from Old Smokey in a small Washington Avenue house with a mango tree in the yard. "We always wanted to eat that fruit, but my dad knew it would make us sick," she says.

Kids would often play in the street out front, but whenever the smoke grew thick, her father would yell from the window for everyone to head inside. "But we'd sneak back out 'cause we wanted to play. That's just how it was," says Bain, now 70 years old. Both parents died in their 50s. Five siblings have also passed away; none lived past 56. One died from lung cancer, another from pancreatic cancer. Her youngest sister died inexplicably of a heart attack at age 25. Nearly everyone in her family had asthma or other lung problems as a child.

By the early '60s, the City of Miami, which owned the facility, grew alarmed by the volume of escaped ash and embers, and pressed operators to reduce emissions. The dawning environmental movement, coupled with increased state and federal pollution control measures, added pressure to clean up Old Smokey, culminating in a lawsuit filed in 1969 by the largely white and affluent City of Coral Gables demanding it be shut down. (Incinerator smoke, apparently, did not recognize racial boundaries.)

Indeed, the decision to close Old Smokey owes as much to the civil rights movement as to environmental awareness. As lawyers squared off in Judge Raymond Nathan's county courtroom, a white, 12-year-old Coral Gables boy named Richard Tobin faced the prospect of integration: busing to the historically black George Washington Carver Middle School in West Coconut Grove.

Anxious yet open to the move, his mother, a part-time educator, took a teaching position at Carver (extreme helicopter parenting, before anybody coined the term). "I wanted to check things out, see things firsthand before sending our son there," recalls Arlyne Tobin, now 81 and, remarkably, still a part-time substitute teacher in the Miami-Dade school system. Old Smokey sat a stone's throw from the school.

As fate would have it, Tobin's husband, Michael, played tennis on occasion with Judge Nathan. One day, furious that clouds of ash smothered the school grounds and sometimes choked the students where she taught PE classes, Arlyne Tobin marched onto the tennis court to speak with the judge. "She said, 'Get your ass out of the courtroom and go see what it's really like down next to Old Smokey!'" recalls Michael Tobin, a retired attorney still living in Coral Gables with Arlyne.

The judge did, and signed the order on the spot to shut down the incinerator within 24 hours, brushing aside the City of Miami's pledge to overhaul the aging facility and reduce emissions.

City officials were irate. Mayor Steve Clark called the judge's ruling "an injustice" and declared that Miami was "in the forefront in the fight against pollution." An appellate court upheld the ruling, describing the incinerator's condition as "deleterious."

Over the next four decades, the memory of Old Smokey slowly faded. The smokestack was torn down in 1974, and the facility remained shuttered and abandoned. Neighborhood kids, recalls one nearby resident, occasionally broke in to ride skateboards on the smooth concrete floors. In 1983, the City of Miami converted the building into a training center for the fire-rescue department. It remains in use today.

But last summer, 24-year-old University of Miami law student Zach Lipshultz, researching a civil rights case in the West Grove, stumbled upon a stunning municipal secret: The land surrounding the facility was scattered with deadly toxins that had likely been there for decades.

City officials, Lipshultz learned, had discovered the contamination two years earlier, in 2011, after conducting routine soil tests required under the county building code. And despite the potential human health risks posed by the toxic soil in and around the 4.5-acre site, city officials kept the findings to themselves. Although they reported the results to Miami-Dade environmental regulators as required by law, they failed to inform the public. Nor did they say anything to administrators at Carver Middle and other nearby schools. Furthermore, city officials made no move to clean up the toxic soil around the incinerator-turned-fire-training-center. They still haven't.

After New Times and the Miami Herald broke the news, city leaders last August promised a thorough investigation of soils within a one-mile radius of Old Smokey. Since then, deposits of highly toxic incinerator ash, presumably from Old Smokey, have been dug up in six city parks, prompting their indefinite closure. City officials cannot even guess at the bill to clean them up.

Prompted by reports about incinerator-related contamination and possible links to cancer and other diseases, longtime residents began asking what seemed a straightforward question: If exposure to such toxins poses a human health risk today, did it pose a risk years earlier, when day in and day out they breathed in the soot and wiped the ash from their faces?

Leona Cooper is one such resident. Born and raised in the West Grove only a few blocks from the incinerator, she has watched friends and family suffer from a range of respiratory ailments and cancer. Cooper's energy and forthright demeanor disguise her nearly eight decades of life. Since news broke of the contaminated soil, she has become a sort of de facto elder statesperson for the community, cajoling former residents to speak up about life in the haze of the incinerator. Like many others, she never suspected it could cause illness. Now she does. "Was Old Smokey making people sick?" she asks.

That is a fair question, says Anthony Alfieri, a professor of legal ethics at the University of Miami, director of its Environmental Justice Project, and a veteran West Grove legal activist. "Don't these people have a right to know?" asks Alfieri, whose team of law students and pro bono attorneys is helping to advise the community. "Is it unreasonable to assume that their exposure to incinerator ash, over many years, may have been a factor in illness?"

Yes, it's a reasonable assumption, responds Dr. Steven Lipshultz, a University of Miami research physician and a nationally recognized leader in exposure-related disease among children. (In an extraordinary coincidence, Miami-Dade's resident medical expert on the effects of prolonged toxic exposure is the father of the sleuthing law student, Zach Lipshultz, who uncovered the city's secret toxicology reports.)

Dr. Lipshultz has devoted his career to long-term follow-up studies that track the sometimes evolving health consequences of toxicity, especially in younger age groups. Though you never know for sure until delving in with scientific rigor, he explains, adverse health effects might occur years, even decades, after the exposure.

In some cases, the impact appears in future generations. He has argued publicly for an environmental assessment of both present and past toxicity levels in the West Grove to help predict health outcomes among the incinerator's closest neighbors.

But calculating the risks associated with previous exposure incidents — in this case years in the past — is deemed a low priority, and of limited community value, by the Florida Department of Health (DOH) and the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), which oversees pollution control countywide.

Both agencies are quick to respond to current exposure crises — calculating how much toxic soil at a certain contamination level must be eaten by a child of a certain weight before he gets sick and dies, for instance. But if you lived much of your early childhood engulfed by a toxic cloud of nebulous chemical composition, Florida's public health officials are of little help. Such inaction, says Dr. Lipshultz, illustrates the hole in our public health system. "If you have a reasonable suspicion that there may be a consequence to long-term exposures, you need to ask these questions," he says. "But right now nobody is, at least not in a scientific, systematic way."

For its part, the City of Miami is asking very little and saying even less. Alfieri suspects the specter of legal action has spooked officials into silence. At least one city official, Alfieri claims, has spoken with university superiors about how Alfieri's team intends to advise residents of their legal rights.

In a recent interview, Alice Bravo, the assistant city manager overseeing toxic cleanup issues, denied that her legal staff has discussed the issue. She insisted she had not heard of any health complaints from West Grove residents. When questions veered to past-exposure risks, she abruptly ended the conversation. "Ash flying through the air? Don't know anything about that," she said. Bravo also failed to respond to New Times' written questions about Old Smokey.

DERM's environmental chief, Wilbur Mayorga, declined to answer questions about Old Smokey and past-exposure concerns. And officials from the Florida Department of Health (DOH) refused repeated interview requests. In a written response to New Times, DOH spokesperson Sheri Hutchinson said the department has never conducted a health assessment — a comprehensive, community-wide health review — in the vicinity of Old Smokey. The reason: No one asked.

As for present-day heath risks, Hutchinson wrote, residents have little to worry about. After reviewing the county's soil test data, DOH toxicologists are assured that "levels of contaminants fell below health benchmark values, and adverse health effects are unlikely."

For her first 14 years of life, Shirley McLean lived down the street from Old Smokey. Like her neighbor Delphine Bennett, she recalls nearby roofs catching fire and residents scrambling to extinguish the flames. In 1950, she and her family picked up and moved a few blocks to the west, but she never escaped the chronic sinus problems and itchy eyes she attributes to the ash she inhaled during her childhood.

Like others who shared their recollections, McLean is deliberate in speech, pausing often in search of a street name, a neighbor, or an indelible moment of childhood so many years ago. If she is angry — with those who assigned her fate, a life shaped by the Jim Crow policies of segregated America — she holds it inside. "Just the way things were," she says, repeating a refrain among older residents of the West Grove. She thinks often of family, friends, and neighbors who suffered more than she. And for those who've died: "You can't throw a rock without hitting somebody who hasn't lost somebody to cancer."

To be sure, not everybody who lived next to Old Smokey blames it for life's miseries. Leroy Delancy was born a few paces from the incinerator and breathed its smoke and ash until he joined the Navy at age 18 and left Miami for good. Now 77, retired and ­living in San Diego, he says he can't pinpoint a malady related to toxic exposure — either back then or today. And his father, always healthy, lived to see 80. "Yes, the smoke at times was unbearable, but did it make anybody sick? Nobody really knows."

When David Lee, an epidemiologist at the University of Miami, co-authored a research paper in early 2013 suggesting that abnormally high rates of pancreatic cancer in a handful of communities around Florida might be linked to nearby drinking water wells contaminated with arsenic, he knew nothing about Old Smokey. The paper, "Pancreatic Cancer Clusters and Arsenic-Contaminated Drinking Water Wells in Florida," resulted from reinterpreting data collected a few years earlier, long before the resurgent debate over the health impact of incinerator ash in Miami.

But when a junior colleague and co-author of the obscure academic paper tipped off New Times to the findings, it didn't take long for frightened residents to connect the dots: Of 16 communities around the state with high rates of pancreatic cancer — a so-called cancer cluster — one was right here in Miami-Dade and, to be precise, West Coconut Grove. That cluster, the researchers conclude, might have been caused by arsenic found in nearby well water. And arsenic is one of the most common and dangerous components of incinerator ash.

Yet Lee, the director of UM's graduate program in public health, cautions against using the study to link Old Smokey with cancer. From his high-rise office overlooking UM's medical campus west of downtown Miami, he painstakingly explains the study's limitations — from data collection to the statistical models used to draw the correlations. Other explanations for the pancreatic cancer cluster besides arsenic remain possible. Nevertheless, the results of the study are intriguing enough to warrant follow-up research, he says. But when he applied for funding, he was denied.

Lee, who has a habit of smiling when pressing a point, shrugs off the setback, noting that plenty of worthy cancer research goes unfunded. Indeed, he even argues, hypothetically, that funds for a follow-up study might be better spent researching interventions that reduce smoking, improve diet, or target other harmful lifestyle choices. "The lion's share of cancer is caused not by exposure to toxins, but by behaviors under our control," he says.

However, he does not outright reject Old Smokey as a cause, or a factor, in the high rates of pancreatic cancer in the West Grove. Arsenic is indeed a principal toxic component of incinerator ash (and highly carcinogenic) and could have polluted the groundwater. And while the source of the arsenic in the wells is unknown — in fact, it could be naturally occurring — it's also possible that arsenic did cause the cancer but that the exposure occurred through other means: skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation. All valid theories.

Also uncertain is whether other cancer types — liver, lung, thyroid, for example — are abnormally high in the West Grove. Such clusters are not reflected in raw data collected by health officials; they are found only if tested for using sophisticated statistical modeling, explains UM epidemiologist Jill MacKinnon, a co-author of Lee's study and chief of the Florida Cancer Data System, which tracks cancer cases across the state. In other words, to find a cancer cluster, you need to look really hard. And that takes money. Researchers stumbled upon the West Grove pancreatic cancer cluster perhaps a decade ago while searching for tobacco-related illnesses. (But smoking has been ruled out as a cause of the West Grove cluster).

The City of Miami's Bravo said she was not aware of any cancer clusters in Coconut Grove. Florida's DOH has allegedly never been asked to look for one. (Lee's study appeared in the March 2013 edition of BMC Cancer, a peer-reviewed online medical journal, and has been cited in media reports.)

While rates and causes of cancer in the West Grove are unclear, the presence of arsenic is not. Soil tested in the immediate vicinity of the fire-rescue training center, a block off busy Grand Avenue, shows levels of arsenic many times the EPA's recognized limit for safe human exposure. Unsafe arsenic readings were also found at 18 of 42 sites sampled within a mile radius of the former incinerator. At a public meeting this past September, city and county officials obscured those findings by announcing only the average of all the samples, which, they assured residents, fell within a normal range.

But a closer look tells a different story: some readings, many at private homes in Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, reveal arsenic at two to three times the level considered safe for human exposure. An inspection of county reports shows no effort to notify property owners of toxic soil readings.

The accuracy of the city's testing has also come into question. At Miami's Douglas Park, for instance, one probe revealed arsenic in the soil at barely above the county's designated "cleanup target level" (CTL), perhaps attributable to naturally occurring deposits. Yet a follow-up test barely a month later showed arsenic levels ten times higher, forcing the shutdown of the park. Officials determined it had long ago been used as a dumping site for incinerator ash, most likely from Old Smokey. Today, the park remains fenced off.

Meanwhile, students at Carver Middle School are taking nothing for granted. To measure toxicity levels on the school's athletic playing field, a group of students earlier this year tested soils and compared them with city and county findings. Last month, their report, "Old Smokey's Dirty Secret," was named one of five grand-prize winners, from among more than 2,300 entries, in a nationwide science contest.

Roland Daniels never suspected the ash that rained on his home might have caused the asthma he and his brother suffered from as children. Nor did he think it initiated the emphysema that killed his mother. And maybe it didn't, he says. But there would be comfort in knowing whether Old Smokey's toxic legacy is following him into retirement, which he recently began at age 68 after a long and successful career as an auto sales executive. Daniels lived his first 18 years in a small house across the street from the incinerator. "We breathed in a lot of that ash," he says from his home in Tampa. "Should I be worried?"

Dr. Lipshultz has chased those kinds of questions for the past 35 years. He helps with the long-term studies of victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and of survivors and families of Japan's atomic bomb blasts. Early in his career, he treated children stricken with leukemia after exposure to toxic chemicals illegally dumped into the water supply near Boston in the 1980s, an incident that spawned the bestselling book and film A Civil Action.

Later this year, Lipshultz will take a position at Wayne State University in Detroit, a move that allows him to speak more candidly than other UM employees about Old Smokey. (Some declined to be interviewed for this article). He says local and state officials — either through fear of litigation, bureaucratic inertia, or sheer incompetence — have buried their heads in the toxic sand.

He argues that a combination of factors — current contamination levels, the existing medical literature on the health effects of incinerator ash, and ample anecdotal evidence of West Grove medical histories — warrants a thorough and exhaustive investigation by public health officials. He calls for a community-based disease registry of West Grove residents to track past and present health outcomes. Such data can help predict future health concerns in high-risk groups, improving health-care delivery.

"In certain types of exposures, you may not see an adverse outcome for many years, maybe not even until the following generation," he argues. "We really don't know, but the only way to find out is to look."

Lipshultz says a thorough investigation of Old Smokey is unlikely as long as the city and the county — which owned, operated, and regulated the incinerator for nearly half a century — are making those decisions. "They have too much skin in the game," he says. In similar cases across the nation, he notes, local leaders have assembled an independent panel of outside experts — epidemiologists, toxicologists, and public health officials, typically from out of state — who review the evidence and make recommendations unsullied by municipal meddling.

So far there have been no takers.

UM Law School's Alfieri has given up waiting. Last fall he assembled a group of West Grove residents, activists, and volunteers to pressure government regulators into action. His group, the Old Smokey Steering Committee, meets in a West Grove church once or twice a month. Not long ago, they began circulating a health questionnaire throughout the community in hopes of compiling their own crude disease registry. The group's legal team will soon petition the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (both federal agencies) to investigate past and present contamination from Old Smokey, as well as the health impact.

At a meeting of the group not long ago, one resident quietly pointed out an irony: TV cameras, a city commissioner, and investigators wearing hazmat suits all showed up when buried toxic ash was discovered last fall in tiny Blanche Park on the other side of town. But over in the West Grove, he said, no local leaders will acknowledge there's a problem.

Deloris Patterson Bain, the resident who lost five siblings — two to cancer — simply wants the truth. "I know why they put Old Smokey where they did — we all know — but that's all in the past," she says. "What I want to know is if it made people sick. If we find out, it may not benefit me or my family, but maybe it will stop something like this from ever happening again."

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David Villano