The Dumbing-Down of DERM

Does John Renfrow suffer from a severely impaired memory? Or does Renfrow, director of Miami-Dade County's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), just want people to believe his memory is shot? Either way, it wouldn't be good news for the complex and fragile ecosystem he is supposed to be protecting.

But one person's garbage, as they say, is another's treasure. Plenty of unscrupulous Miami-Dade businessmen and developers would be pleased to learn that the county's top environmental watchdog seems to have contracted some kind of bureaucratic amnesia.

The quality of Renfrow's memory became an issue when, last month, he was questioned under oath as part of a lawsuit in which a politically connected businessman is suing an angry and determined Redland resident named Ellen Perez. During a deposition conducted by Perez's attorney, the DERM director appeared to know little about the dispute that led to the lawsuit -- a very serious contamination problem Renfrow's own department allowed to fester for several years. Worse (or better, depending on your point of view), he was unable to answer straightforward questions about the very environmental laws he is charged with enforcing.

It isn't uncommon for witnesses involved in civil lawsuits to play dumb in hopes of avoiding further entanglement in the litigation. But Renfrow's performance at the December deposition drew highly critical reviews from local environmentalists and other county residents who believe it demonstrated the degree to which he has capitulated to his pro-business boss, Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver. The critics charge that, as a result of pressure from the manager, 51-year-old Renfrow, DERM director since 1989, has fled from the responsibilities of his job, that he is now simply trying to protect his $149,000 salary, and that DERM has been effectively incapacitated by Shiver. (Renfrow did not respond to several requests for comment.)

"Everyone knows it's Steve [Shiver] who is pushing the buttons," asserts Barbara Lange, a well-known Sierra Club activist. "Renfrow is just looking to save himself when he should stand up and protect the environment."

Attorney Michael Pizzi, defending Perez in what he charges is a classic SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), found the DERM director to be singularly uninformed during the deposition. "Renfrow acted like he doesn't have a clue," says Pizzi. "You can't get a straight answer out of him on anything. The guy probably needs a map to find his office."

At the least it appears Renfrow would need a map to find the contamination site at the heart of the dispute.

Since 1998 Perez and her neighbors in the rural Redland district north of Homestead have been waging war against the Ouster Corp. and its owner, Tomas Andres Mestre, a wealthy trucking magnate who has hosted fundraisers for Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and Steve Shiver (when he was running for Homestead mayor).

In a deal approved by the county, Mestre's company earned roughly $700,000 by hauling more than 200,000 tons of waste material to property Ouster owned at SW 210th Street and 167th Avenue. Mestre's plan was to process the trash (yard clippings and other materials), then sell it to nurseries as mulch or compost.

The mountain of waste created a horrid stench that prompted more than 60 neighbors to complain to county officials. Of far greater concern than foul odors, however, was the discovery that the material was contaminated and posed uncertain but potentially grave health risks.

County bureaucrats, well aware of Mestre's political clout, didn't take regulatory action against Ouster until last year, when Renfrow finally shut down the site and ordered Mestre to remove the toxic trash. (Still Mestre managed to grab another $500,000 for transporting the material to the South Miami-Dade landfill.) Meanwhile the soil at the Ouster site remains contaminated and is being monitored by county officials.

Mestre's lawsuit, which is dragging into its second year, claims that Perez "intentionally made false statements about Ouster and its business activities for the purpose of harming Ouster to force it to close the facility." The fiery Redland homeowner mistakenly believed the county had found arsenic in her residential water well, and made comments to that effect to two local newspapers. According to attorney Pizzi, the court action has taken its toll on Perez. So far she has rung up $10,000 in legal fees, and the stress has led to another $16,000 in medical bills.

In the deposition, Pizzi questioned Renfrow on subjects ranging from the Ouster incident to details about his job as DERM director. Below are excerpts.

Pizzi: "What type of materials did Ouster take ... to their storage facility [in the Redland]?"

Renfrow: "It is what we referred to as soil-like material."

Pizzi: "What do you mean by soil-like material?"

Renfrow: "Well, there is no such -- since we didn't know exactly what it was, that is the terminology we gave it."

Pizzi: "Who gave it that term?"

Renfrow: "I don't remember."

Pizzi: "Where did [the material] come from?"

Renfrow: "I don't know."

Pizzi: "But wouldn't it be important for you to know where the material came from?"

Renfrow: "It would be important for me to know what is the material."

Pizzi: "What are DERM's requirements for maintaining a composting facility?"

Renfrow: "I do not know."

Pizzi: "Based on your staff's initial observations of Ouster, was that a composting facility?"

Renfrow: "Not to my knowledge."

[Pizzi handed Renfrow a copy of a 1998 memo the DERM director wrote to the county's planning and zoning director regarding the Ouster site.]

Pizzi: "You told [the director] that this was going to be a resource-recovery facility that would be engaging in composting of organic materials. Correct?"

Renfrow: "That's what this memo indicates."

Pizzi: "Do you have any explanation as to why the Ouster site would have been referred to as a mulching or composting facility in this memo?"

Renfrow: "I don't know."

Pizzi: "Now, a composting facility is required to be conducted in a confined or enclosed structure with masonry walls -- isn't that correct?"

Renfrow: "I can't answer that question. I don't know."

Pizzi: "Are the requirements for a composting facility different than the requirements for a facility storing soil?"

Renfrow: "I don't know if I can answer that question."

Pizzi: "What is the level of arsenic that would be acceptable in a soil-like storage facility?"

Renfrow: "I do not know."

Pizzi: "This is my last question for today. When would someone have to fill out a lobbyist-registration form prior to meeting with you on behalf of their client?"

Renfrow: "I don't know."

Ellen Perez's neighbor John Wade, who was present at the deposition, says he was taken aback by Renfrow's professed ignorance. "I was absolutely amazed how he indicated he really didn't know what was going on at the site," Wade relates. "The man has known a great deal about [the Ouster site] since day one. He couldn't even remember what his first jobs were at DERM. Amazing!"

The Sierra Club's Barbara Lange notes that DERM under Renfrow's watch has done at least an adequate job of protecting the environment. But that changed, she contends, when Shiver became county manager in 2001. By way of example, she points out that in the past, DERM officials felt at ease informally chatting with her. "But now," she says, "employees are terrified to talk to me about anything."

Another prominent environmental activist, who asked not to be named, believes Renfrow may not have the resolve to do battle with Shiver. For one thing, two years ago Renfrow lost his wife to cancer. "John's had some personal problems and I'm sympathetic with the situation he finds himself in," the environmentalist says. "But John is a political realist first and foremost. And right now the political environment is completely hostile. I think he carefully navigates hot political issues while trying to do the best he can for his department."

An inspector currently working at DERM, who also requested anonymity, affirms that gloomy portrait of an agency under siege. "Steve [Shiver] has his fingers in everything," the county employee complains. "He's let people know that if you crack down on any of his friends you'll lose your job."

"Shiver let people know that if you crack down on his friends you'll lose your job."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.

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