Longform

Old Incinerator and New Cancer in Coconut Grove

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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