The North Miami City Council voted 4-1 last week to direct the city manager and attorney to come up with an agreement with the developer of Biscayne Landing to allow the company to use soil at the site containing high levels of aluminum.
The settlement would essentially be a fee that Oleta Partners would pay the city for the extra work its groundwater system would do to divert water containing potential aluminum runoff away from nearby wetlands.
“If the council elects to keep the fill on site, I’m asking the developers to pay a $1 million fee because the developers will be taxing our system,” said City Manager Stephen Johnson.
The settlement is supposed to be ready by the council’s next meeting, on Nov. 12.
Oleta Partners brought to the site mounds of soil containing levels of aluminum above cleanup levels set by Miami-Dade County environmental rules. But it’s not dangerous to human health, according to two county regulatory agencies and a toxicology expert.
Despite those votes of confidence, residents are still concerned because of the site’s history as a landfill and the surrounding area.
“It’s of particular concern because it’s near a school site,” said Susan Luck, a public health nurse who teaches environmental health at the University of Miami. “What happens over time as those children age?”
The vote against the settlement came from Vice Mayor Scott Galvin who said he wants the soil removed.
Removing the soil and finding another location for it could potentially cost the developer millions, according to Joe Celestin, the city’s Biscayne Landing site manager, compared to the $1.7 million they paid for it.
However, Herb Tillman of Oleta Partners said during the meeting there is “no economic benefit” for them to buy the soil from the Brickell CitiCentre construction site.
The fill the developers needed was only available from a single source.
“We didn’t want to deal with 20,000 yards here or 40,000 there,” Tillman said to the Miami Herald on Friday.
So far no lakes have been filled with the 194,000 cubic yards of soil – out of almost 600,000 needed – sitting next to the lakes at the site.
“We can’t put one spoonful of it anywhere until we have approval,” Tillman said.
The soil is uncovered but watered down to keep wind from blowing dust from the soil, according to Tillman.
But former North Miami Mayor Frank Wolland said he sees white roofs on the nearby homes when wind blows.
“People that are out there are breathing this stuff,” Wolland said during the meeting. “I wouldn’t want my children to breathe the stuff.”
Tillman said that the developers are “very well aware” that they are held to a higher standard and that residents’ concerns are important to them both now and when the development is complete.
“We want them to be very comfortable that they would be able to let their children play and walk their dog without being exposed to contaminants,” he said.
The County’s Regulatory and Economic Resources Department gave the developers approval to reuse the material after determining the metals and chemicals within it are not harmful to humans. Independent reviewers Westhorp & Associates Inc. made the same determination and the County’s Environmental Quality Control Board granted the developers an exception to the county regulations.
But aluminum is safe even at high levels, according to the two county agencies, Westhorp and David Krause, a consultant who has a doctorate in environmental and occupational health and a master’s degree in public health and toxicology.
“Our bodies don’t absorb aluminum very well when ingested,” Krause said. “Less than one percent of aluminum ingested is actually absorbed.”
Kruase does consulting work with the drilling company at the Brickell site.
And there being “high levels” of aluminum, higher than the county’s normal limits, does not make it contaminated, Krause said.
“The numbers are derived to be overly protective,” he said.
While the groundwater system could prevent aluminum runoff from reaching the wetlands, as it is intended to do with ammonia, it was not built for that purpose according to site engineers and Celestin.
The system, including the injection wells, sucks out water and sends it about 3,000 feet into the ground where it’s supposed to stay indefinitely and never return to the surface.
However, as of now, the system itself is only half complete. But because it exists and will eventually be finished, the developers received permission to use the soil.
“It’s not set in stone that the injection well will do its job,” warned Celestin during the meeting.