Every day more than 1,000 children attend school and play outside within sight of Old Smokey, the city of Miami’s trash-burning incinerator shut down as a public nuisance by court order in 1970 after 45 years of operation in the West Grove. Now repainted as the City’s Fire-Rescue Training Center, Old Smokey stands as a local monument to environmental injustice and social irresponsibility.
For almost 90 years, the soil where Old Smokey stands has been dangerously contaminated with toxins and carcinogenic chemicals. Indeed, since 1925 residents of West Grove have been — and continue to be — exposed to chemicals that have the potential to create severe, long-term health consequences. Among these chemicals are arsenic, lead and cadmium, all of which are listed in the World Health Organization’s “10 Chemicals of Major Public Health Concern.”
In 2011, environmental testing of the soil and groundwater found concentrations of these chemicals in surface soils above the safe exposure thresholds set by Miami-Dade County. A second set of tests this year verified the contamination with these chemicals and also found higher concentrations of arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene (BaP). In addition, incinerator ash was found in half the sampled locations. Incinerator ash contains high concentrations of contaminants, and its presence has prompted extensive, long-term remediation projects at several sites throughout Miami-Dade County.
One-third of the Old Smokey samples contained concentrations of BaP that exceeded the higher thresholds set for industrial areas. In humans, BaP is highly carcinogenic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, contaminated soil is one of the most serious sources of BaP toxicity in children.
More than two-thirds of the Old Smokey soil testing locations contained unsafe concentrations of arsenic; one sample had concentrations more than four times above the safety limit set for residential communities. Arsenic is commonly found in bottom ash at high concentrations. The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists arsenic as a Group 1 carcinogen. Long-term exposure is associated with higher risks of skin, lung and bladder cancer, childhood developmental disabilities, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The environmental tests also found dangerous concentrations of lead, barium and cadmium. Lead is a highly poisonous metal that affects almost every organ and system in the body, especially the nervous system. It has pronounced negative effects on childhood intellectual development. Barium can affect the nervous system, causing cardiac irregularities, tremors, weakness, anxiety, difficulty breathing and paralysis. Maternal exposure to cadmium may result in low birth weights and developmental effects, such as skeletal malformations, metabolic disorders and neurological problems.
Despite these two environmental studies, the city of Miami has not informed West Grove families of the potential health hazards posed by Old Smokey. It has not commissioned the required comprehensive environmental assessment to determine the extent of contamination throughout the entire site and adjacent properties. It has not presented a plan for remediating the hazardous substances found at the site or a plan for studying the 88-year-old health consequences to affected citizens, especially the young, the sick and the elderly, through a community-based disease registry.
Disease registries collect information over many years from people who have been exposed to toxic chemicals. Such registries allow researchers to discover the health effects of exposures that may take decades to appear. We support the creation of a registry for the former, current, and future residents of the West Grove. Such a registry would benefit not only West Grove residents but also anyone exposed to similar toxins.
Unlike two other former incinerators — one on Northeast Sixth Avenue in north Miami-Dade and the other on Northwest 20th Street in Miami — Old Smokey has never been assessed by the federal government’s Superfund program. In fact, in the 43 years since its closure, there has been no comprehensive environmental testing and no official efforts to clean up the site.
It’s time for the city of Miami to honor its promises of equal treatment and responsibilities for public health by informing the citizens of the West Grove of their potential health risks, testing the full extent of contamination on the site and the surrounding areas, applying the appropriate remedial actions and creating a registry to monitor residents’ health and medical care related to toxic exposures.
Zachary A. Lipshultz is a fellow at the Environmental Justice Project for the Center for Ethics and Public Service, University of Miami School of Law. Anthony V. Alfieri (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the center’s director and law professor at UM. Dr. Steven E. Lipshultz (email@example.com) is a professor of pediatrics, epidemiology and public health at UM’s Miller School of Medicine.