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The playing fields at Ives Estates Park, one of the newest gems in Miami-Dade Countys extensive necklace of parks, are set amid 100 acres of rolling green topography and forest-like clumps of trees that barely quiet the din of Interstate 95 traffic nearby.
Theres a reason for the unusual shape of the terrain in otherwise pancake-flat South Florida.
Like numerous county and municipal parks across Miami-Dade, Ives Estates was built atop and around an old trash dump.
In a place where property is expensive and public budgets tight, local government officials looking to build parks have for decades turned to reclaimed land, old quarries, ash pits, trash dumps and bits left over from development and road building, much of it often contaminated.
The 5-year-old Ives Estates Park represents the state of the art in land reclamation: Rigorous testing was conducted to determine exactly what was in the ground. Caps of soil, fill and synthetic membranes were engineered to safely contain the trash and hazardous materials buried beneath. The park building has a sophisticated ventilation system to eliminate methane seeping out of the ground from organic decomposition, and an alarm system should the highly flammable gas build up.
But it wasnt always so.
Until the 1970s, when federal action put a stop to the practice, county and municipal trash and garbage was deposited in abandoned quarries and largely unregulated, unlined dumps and landfills. That material was often joined in a toxic stew by ash from at least four municipal incinerators that operated across the county as well as illegal, free-lance dumping, fouling sites from Homestead to Virginia Key and northeast Miami-Dades Ojus neighborhood, the location today of Ives Estates Park.
Some of the sites were simply covered with soil or fill of uncertain origins, seeded with grass, and declared parks decades ago. There was little to no testing at the time, no standard for safe reclamation, and no good record of what lay beneath the surface.
That legacy resurfaced in recent weeks with discoveries of high levels of soil contaminants in two city of Miami parks in Coconut Grove. At least one, Blanche Park, appears to have once served as a dumping ground for ash from the citys notorious Old Smokey incinerator, which operated nearby for nearly 50 years until the city closed it in 1970. The other, Merrie Christmas Park, which remains closed while soil samples are evaluated, is a former rock pit dating back to the 1920s.
The discoveries have prompted county regulators to order testing of all 112 of Miamis parks, now underway. Available evidence so far, including results of ongoing testing of county-owned parks, suggests the overwhelming majority of county and municipal parks in Miami-Dade are safe and clean.
But the new, troubling finds are not anomalies. In the past 15 years, since new rules and standards were enacted by the county, potentially unsafe levels of hazardous materials such as arsenic and lead have been found in the soil or groundwater in several other long-established parks, requiring emergency closures and costly cleanups running into the millions of dollars.
Those include Gwen Cherry Park, a former dump site, and Olinda Park, which the city of Miami used as an incinerator ash deposit, both in Northwest Miami-Dade; Fern Isle Park, astride State Road 836, where the city illegally dumped construction debris; Hammocks Community Park in West Kendall, where remediation of arsenic-laced soil will soon begin; and the former Bicentennial Park, the site of the old Port of Miami downtown, which is being transformed into a home for new art and science museums.