Longform

Old Incinerator and New Cancer in Coconut Grove

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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."

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David Villano