Old Incinerator and New Cancer in Coconut Grove

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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.

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David Villano