Ash, she said, has been tied to lead contamination, a difficult to trace but potentially profoundly damaging toxin.
“You’ve got lead linked to increasing crime and (developmental delays) and all these things are tied together, but it’s not really on the surface.” she said. “It’s more subtle.”
Despite those dangers, the EPA has no program for monitoring old sites, said Chris Russell, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator for Florida. The agency, he said, relies on local officials to detect and track problems and only steps in when requested.
“We get involved when they’ve exhausted their resources,” he explained. “Three years. That’s a long time. It sounds like it. But in reality, I would say that’s not uncommon.”
History of complaints
Residents who lived near Old Smoky had long complained about its noxious smoke and ash. According to a 1970 Miami Herald editorial, smoke from the incinerator forced pilots to make instrument landings in 1957.
The stack also violated the county’s pollution ordinance as early as 1964 by generating three to four times what was allowed.
The city of Coral Gables, which borders the area on the south and west, first sued to shut it down in 1962 and again in 1967, finally succeeding in 1970. In rejecting Miami’s effort to keep the incinerator operating, the Third District Court of Appeal noted that evidence from residents “shows that ashes and other particulate matter fell upon their persons and property, and some expressed having experienced physical discomfort therefrom.”
Residents, the judges concluded, “graphically demonstrated the degree of severity with which this incinerator was violating their property rights or their persons.”
The court ordered the city to clean up the incinerator. Instead, the city shut it down.
In 1983, it opened the newly constructed firefighters’ training facility. When the facility needed to expand to maintain its state certification to train firefighters, the city ordered the soil testing in 2010, records show. In the report Lipshultz discovered, Cherokee Enterprises Inc. told the city it could find no evidence that any testing for contamination, or clean up, was ever performed, despite an incinerator having operated on the site since the 1930s.
Around the country and in South Florida, contamination has routinely been found near incinerators. In 1989, the EPA designated Fort Lauderdale’s old municipal landfill and incinerator in the northwest corner of the city, which opened in 1954, a Superfund site. The designation triggered a $20 million clean-up.
In 2011, the EPA ordered another clean-up after finding lead contamination at Olinda Park on Northwest 51st Street, where the city of Miami had dumped incinerator ash more than a half century ago, until it gave the land back to the county in 1944. The county turned it into a neighborhood park.
Tracking residents’ health
While significant health and environmental risks from old incinerator sites remain a matter of debate, studying Grove residents would provide a unique chance to look at a sizable and tight-knit population with deep roots, said Dr. Steven Lipshultz, a pediatric cardiologist, UM professor and director of the Batchelor Children’s Research Institute at UM medical school.
Lipshultz, Zach Lipshultz’s father, cared for children in the landmark Massachusetts case that became the book A Civil Action, which was made into a film starring Robert Duvall. Lipshultz was on staff at Children’s Hospital in Boston before joining the faculty at Harvard Medical School and Boston University. He believes a health registry should be started to track illnesses.
“If one is going to tell a story like this, there is also an obligation to say, well, what really are the consequences?” he said. “When you’re talking about low levels of exposure, it’s not easy to see these. So we really need to get professionals to look at these neighborhoods so you can get the answer to, is this just a bunch of nonsense and we’re being alarmist? Or do we really need to follow it?”