Once dangerously high levels of toxins were found at Blanche Park in Coconut Grove last week, the city of Miami kicked into high gear: Commissioner Marc Sarnoff on the case, nearby residents informed, park closed, soil capped, borings’ samples examined, kids and Golden Labradors safe. And that’s just what should have happened. Once the findings were known, residents’ health and well-being were paramount.
So why did it take the city two years to adequately address the troubling findings in another neighborhood — the less tony, but ever hardy, West Grove? In 2011, the city discovered contaminated soil there as it was considering the expansion of a firefighter training facility. The facility sits on the site of an incinerator — Old Smokey — that spewed ash from the 1930s until it was closed in 1970.
Older residents in the historic black enclave remember superheated ash igniting roofs. The site sits amid homes, a park and a community center for school kids.
But once alerted, the city never moved with any sense of urgency. Within a few months, Miami-Dade County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) gave the city 60 days to determine what was polluting the soil and what risk it posed to residents. Didn’t happen.
Then the city missed another deadline in August 2011, saying there was no money for a study. The city, indeed, was in dire financial condition, so the study didn’t happen, either. Guess there weren’t enough Golden Labs in that neighborhood.
One other thing didn’t happen: The city didn’t tell residents of the area of the findings on the facility grounds or of concerns for their neighborhood. West Grove homeowners weren’t informed until earlier this year, when a University of Miami graduate student uncovered the initial findings while researching the construction of a nearby trolley garage — for Coral Gables — that many residents don’t want in their midst.
For those two years, children continued to play at Armbrister Park, and students went to the community center after school.
In May of this year, the city at long last submitted a report that confirmed elevated levels of arsenic, which can be naturally occurring, along with other toxic heavy metals including barium and lead on the site, above what the state allows in residential areas.
This is an infuriating tale of two cities that someone needs to explain to the residents of the West Grove. Maybe Mr. Sarnoff will be so inclined at a community-wide meeting scheduled for Monday. There, all Groveites can get an update from DERM on contamination findings and the way forward.
Ironically, the contamination at Blanche Park was discovered because, during its probe of the West Grove, DERM ordered random soil samplings across a wider swath.
The ash at Blanche seems to indicate it was used as a dump decades before.
The commissioner says he never knew of the initial findings of contamination at the firefighter facility in 2011. Once he was alerted this June, he says, he took “forceful” action, meeting with city administrators and DERM and ordering parks and school grounds in the area tested.
Riled West Grove residents, however, might have reason to be somewhat relieved. Wilbur Mayorga, of DERM, said Friday that preliminary findings unearthed no reason for health concerns.
After years of neglect and delay, it’s no wonder West Grove residents feel the city treats them like second-class citizens.