North Miami

Contaminants found at Biscayne Landing site; more testing to come

 

Meeting ahead

The next city council meeting starts at 7 p.m. on Oct. 8 at 776 NE 125th St.


pbuteau@MiamiHerald.com

There are 194,000 cubic yards of contaminated fill material at the Biscayne Landing development site waiting to either be used or removed, depending on results from independent testing.

The county’s newly named Regulatory and Economic Resources Department (formerly the Department of Environmental Resources Management) gave approval to Oleta Partners to use recycled fill material in January 2013 but has rescinded that approval after Joe Celestin, Biscayne Landing site manager and the city’s consultant for the project, challenged their approval.

Although some of the 90 types of chemicals, metals and compounds in the material do in exist in soil naturally, they are in greater supply in the fill material, according to Wilbur Mayorga, the chief of the regulatory agency’s environmental monitoring and restoration division.

“I was not ready to approve any amount of contaminants,” Celestin said to the Miami Herald.

Mayorga said during the city council meeting on Tuesday that only aluminium has a high leaching potential — the ability of minerals, metals and other nutrients to seep into groundwater from the soil — and none of the metals are at a high enough level to be dangerous to human health.

The levels of aluminum are at levels higher than acceptable according to Chapter 24 of the Miami-Dade County Code, which regulates environmental protection.

“My job is to protect Chapter 24 as the city’s consultant,” Celestin said.

He said that if there had not been a groundwater-cleaning system in place at the site since June, the fill material would not have been accepted at all. But even with the system in place, the health risk is too high for the former North Miami mayor and certified landfill operator and builder.

“If you contaminate the water, you contaminate everything else. And I don’t want to do that, to expose the health and safety of the residents,” Celestin said.

He issued a stop-work order in March and no fill material has been brought to the site since, but there is still material at the site.

Celestin recommends that the material be removed, but he added later that the cost could be in the millions — $5 to $10 million. It includes not just removal of the material, but also its storage.

“The material must go to a fill that accepts contaminated material,” Celestin said after a presentation he made to the council on his and the county’s findings at the site.

A decision on what to do with the material won’t come before the city council gets results from independent testing, for which they unanimously voted that Oleta Partners must pay. The council is hoping to have those results by the next meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. on Oct. 8.

“We have to do this to put our residents at peace,” said Mayor Lucie Tondreau during the council meeting on Tuesday.

The developer, however, welcomed the decision, as several tests have already been done on the fill material, including tests the county has conducted.

“We had four other testers, so we know what they’ll find,” said Herbert Tillman, vice president of the Swerdlow Group. “We’ll pay, we’re fine with that.”

Several people spoke during the meeting to stress to the council the point of the material being safe enough: Keith Tolson, a professor at the University of Florida with a doctoral degree in toxicology who also represents the developer; and John Allred, a North Miami resident and a subcontractor at Biscayne Landing.

Allred stressed to the council that they should trust the county’s findings and keep the site running. Allred’s company — Country Bill’s Lawn Maintenance — does street sweeping and trash pickup at the site.

“Don’t shut it down,” Allred said. “Don’t hurt the little guys, council.”

The idea of terminating the lease and shutting down the site hovered over Councilman Scott Galvin’s head when the council found out that city hall staff members had known since March there could be environmental law violations, and that a lab study of the material done in June revealed potential health effects.

The possible health effects were not brought to the council’s attention until the Tuesday meeting.

“Shame on you!” Galvin yelled at City Manager Stephen Johnson, Mayorga and Tillman. “This could’ve been brought to our attention since March. I’d vote to terminate the lease right now.”

The lab study shows a laundry list of possible health effects if someone is expose to the material long enough.

If the materials are wet, or if a person is wet and has had enough contact, they could develop irreversible eye or skin damage. Inhaling may cause nose, throat or lung irritation, and choking, and there is a potential for lung cancer from exposure. Eye contact could result in eye irritation and damage to the cornea. Swallowing large amounts could cause intestinal pain.

Back in February, the developer requested approval from the county to use 300,000 cubic yards of recycled material from the Brickell Citi Center construction site at Biscayne Landing. The county approved the reuse, after which the developer brought in the 194,000 cubic yards of material.

According to public documents, Mayorga sent a letter in May to Johnson and Oleta Partners’ Biscayne Landing Project Manager Darryl Lee in which he wrote that no additional fill material be brought to the site until his division was able to sample the material and decide whether it’s reusable. They decided to rescind their approval, but that did not stop the developer from trying to use the material.

In early September, the developer requested that the county’s environmental quality control board give them an exception to Chapter 24 that restricts the use of material that does not meet its clean-fill standards and the dumping into county water of matter that causes pollution. The request was approved, but not without gaining the attention of Celestin, Johnson and Frank Wolland, another former North Miami mayor.

As representatives of the city, Celestin and Johnson attended a meeting of the quality control board during which Oleta Partners made their case to use the contaminated fill material, and Wolland happened to be there representing one of his clients as a lawyer.

“The way they went about this is the wrong way,” Wolland said to the Miami Herald. “The responsible developer would have tested the material from the site they were taking it from, instead of moving it to our land then testing it.”

Wolland and Celestin brought the issue before the mayor and city council.

“My hats off to Mr. Celestin, he risked his job in doing this,” Wolland said.

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