Miami workers scramble to test toxic soil in 112 parks

Victor Sosa, left, and Javier Isquierdo of Golden Fence drive in fence posts at Merrie Christmas Park in Coconut Grove on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2013. The fence is being erected to keep folks from entering the park where soil contamination has been found.
Victor Sosa, left, and Javier Isquierdo of Golden Fence drive in fence posts at Merrie Christmas Park in Coconut Grove on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2013. The fence is being erected to keep folks from entering the park where soil contamination has been found.

By Jenny Staletovich

A day after Miami announced it would begin testing soil at all its parks, workers scrambled to install a fence around the latest park to be tagged for contaminated soil.

Wednesday morning, nannies who say they gather daily at Merrie Christmas Park in Coconut Grove arrived with toddlers and infants in strollers. But by late afternoon, a line of metal fence posts blocked their entrance.

The discovery of elevated levels of heavy metal at the sloping 5.38 acre park, shaded by towering banyans, is the second in recent weeks. Like Blanche Park, just two miles away, officials believe evidence of melted glass indicates toxic ash may have been dumped at the site the city purchased from the county for $1 in 1954. Following the discovery, county environmental chief Wilbur Mayorga recommended Miami test all 112 of its parks Tuesday.

The response is distinctly faster than the two years it took the city to address contamination found at an old incinerator site in the West Grove, which prompted bitter complaints from residents and set in motion the far reaching tests now being conducted.

“It’s great to finally see them acting in a responsible manner,” said Zach Lipshultz, the University of Miami law student who first discovered the soil study and shared it with residents earlier this year while investigating a controversial trolley garage. “These are the right steps and this is what you need to do.”

So far, the county has sampled about 40 locations in the area, which nearly all show safe levels of various heavy metals.

But at Blanche Park at 3445 Shipping Ave. officials found high amounts of lead and arsenic about 30 times higher than what the state allows.

Two weeks ago, the city paved a parking area to cap contamination and assured neighbors that artificial turf protects them in other areas. The city also launched more intense sampling that is still being studied. The findings have put residents on edge. About 200 attended a meeting last week where Mayorga explained preliminary findings. And on Wednesday, Sarnoff stood at Merrie Christmas Park in front of bank of television cameras trying to reassure residents.

“What’s broken, we need to fix,” he said. “There’s an obligation of the city, the county and the state to test all the parks and see what we need to do to make sure our children are safe.”

The latest plan to study parks city-wide will begin by assessing the risk of each, he explained. Officials will look at when they became parks and try to determine what they had been beforehand. Mayorga said there should be a “particular emphasis on past uses such as rock quarries,” sometimes used later as dumps.

City officials will try to determine just what happened at Merrie Christmas Park years ago. When the city purchased it , the site was overgrown and “the cause of complaints,” said Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo.

Timothy Brantley grew up beside the park in a house on Matheson Avenue, where he still lives. When his parents moved to the area in the 1940s, he said it was still empty land.

“Then they cut out the coral rock to build houses. There were snakes coming up into my yard,” he said.

In addition to the 1,200 feet of chain link fence that will keep visitors away, officials will map a sampling grid, probably in 100-by-100 feet sections.

While samples last week were fast-tracked for results, Mayorga said additional sampling will take longer, at least a week for metals and another two weeks for dioxins. The results are also being shared with state workers who will assess health risks. Once the information is complete, Mayorga said he will hold another community meeting, similar to the one held for Blanche Park. He also hopes to have more conclusive findings on that park.

But even with the testing, residents are nervous.

“I am extremely concerned about this because (my two children) run around all over the place,” said Nicole Levy, who lives a block away from the park.

And UM professor Anthony Alfieri, whose students’ findings pressured officials to act, believes studies must also include far-reaching health surveys and include federal oversight.

“We believe the city and county have to do a comprehensive assessment and clean up that includes a public education campaign and a disease registry,” he said. “We also believe federal and state officials need to be part of that clean-up effort.”

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