When Jimmy Ingram attended what was then a segregated Carver High School in 1959, smoke and ash would billow from a Miami city incinerator a block away, sometimes drifting through the open classroom windows.
“Sometimes the trees would catch fire and we’d have to put them out because the fire department wouldn’t come,” he said.
Some days, he said, the football field on the western edge of Coconut Grove sat under a blanket of ash spewed from Old Smoky, the stack that coughed up plumes routinely exceeding pollution control measures. Other days, ash would ignite rooftops.
“This stuff was just all over. Everywhere. All over the Grove,” he said. “We didn’t know anything about the contamination.”
Until this year. Decades after the incinerator was shut down, the ghost of its toxic plume has reappeared in a growing dispute between residents of the West Grove and city officials, who discovered the contamination more than two years ago but have yet to clean it up, or even lay out a plan for how they will deal with it.
The contamination came to light earlier this year when a University of Miami graduate student stumbled upon it while researching the construction of a nearby trolley garage that residents bitterly oppose. The information has rubbed raw the tense relations between the city and the neighborhood.
“The city of Miami has never taken responsibility and apologized to this community,” said Anthony Alfieri, a UM law professor whose Environmental Justice Project has led the investigation into the matter. “They burdened a Jim Crow community with an incinerator for 45 years without any benefits and then have apparently, for 43 years, either suppressed information or neglected their public health duties to investigate and report it.”
The city first discovered contaminated soil in 2011 while preparing to expand a firefighter training facility that has been on the old incinerator site since 1983. The 4.4-acre property at 3425 Jefferson St. sits amid the houses of the historic black neighborhood, sandwiched between Armbrister Park, where neighborhood kids play Pop Warner football, and the Barnyard, a community center for elementary and middle school students.
Within months, the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) ordered the city to find out exactly what was polluting the soil, what risk it posed to residents and come up with a plan for dealing with it.
It gave the city 60 days to comply.
The city missed the deadline. It missed another deadline in August 2011, saying it lacked the money to pay for a study.
This May, nearly two years later, the city finally submitted a report that confirmed elevated levels of arsenic along with other toxic heavy metals including barium and lead, all above what the state allows in residential areas. The study also confirmed atmospheric pollutants called PAHs above commercial limits. Among the pollutants was benzo(a)pyrene, which is considered highly carcinogenic.
Now, with mounting pressure from residents and the legal team at UM, the county has intensified its scrutiny. Miami-Dade environmental officials have ordered the city to expand its testing to a one-mile radius, with test sites randomly selected by a computer to deliver the most statistically accurate results, said Wilbur Mayorga, chief of Miami-Dade’s Environmental Monitoring & Restoration Division. Borings could come from nearby schools, like Carver and F.S. Tucker elementary schools, which sit within the area, as well as front yards and Armbrister Park.