Miami’s Douglas Park shut down indefinitely for widespread contamination

11/22/2013 12:32 PM

11/22/2013 8:38 PM

Another Miami park was ordered closed this week after tests confirmed soil contaminated with the same toxic metals found at two other parks.

Douglas Park, an expansive 10-acre site located just outside Coral Gables at 2795 SW 37th Ave., will be closed indefinitely — likely for months — while the city develops a plan to deal with the elevated levels of dangerous metals.

“It looks like the entire park is contaminated,” said Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who represents the district and predicted a complicated clean-up that could end up costing millions. “This is going to be a major remediation.”

The discovery marks the third park in recent months to test positive for heavy metals linked to ash from an old Miami incinerator closed in 1970 after neighboring Coral Gables sued. The county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management tested the park in October and again on Nov. 13 as part of a wider study trying to assess possible contamination from the incinerator, which once spewed thick smoke from its stack a mile away at 3425 Jefferson St.

The city had just found documents showing the park had been a rock pit and used by the city as a dump in the 1930s, said Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo. The city was trying to schedule a meeting with the county when it received the letter ordering the park closed, she said.

“It seems they observed something visually and had taken their own samples, so we converged at the same time,” she said.

The tests a week ago, done to confirm the earlier findings, show elevated levels of antimony, arsenic, barium, copper, iron and lead. The toxic metals are linked to a host of health problems, particularly lead, which can be more dangerous to children and can remain hidden because there are no specific symptoms to signal exposure.

In addition to ordering the park closed Thursday, the county gave the city 30 days to come up with a plan for determining the extent of the contamination and map out a sampling plan.

In September, after residents began complaining that the city had dragged its feet on addressing contamination found near the old incinerator two years earlier, the county embarked on its wider testing. Workers discovered similar contaminants at Blanche and Merrie Christmas parks in Coconut Grove.

Blanche Park, a small neighborhood park at 3045 Shipping Ave., has remained open because it is covered with artificial turf, which acts as a protective seal. But earlier this month, tests confirmed that antimony had contaminated groundwater. Antimony is used in batteries, ceramics and paint and can cause heart and lung problems. The city dug two additional wells and is now testing water to determine whether the contamination has spread.

Merrie Christmas Park, a rolling field with playground equipment on South LeJeune Road and about half the size of Douglas Park, has been fenced off since late September after testing turned up similar contamination. While the city is still working on a remediation plan, Sarnoff predicted the work would be relatively simple and require simply removing and replacing contaminated soil.

Sarnoff said he found out about the results at Douglas Park, a popular draw for the neighborhood, on Thursday. The park has a renovated playground as well as basketball and tennis courts.

In September, when DERM’s pollution control chief, Wilbur Mayorga, ordered the city to investigate all 112 of its parks, he warned officials to pay particular attention to sites that might have once been rock pits or quarries. So far, the city has reviewed about half of its parks and found no others where there is any evidence that ash was dumped, Bravo said. But because there were no laws governing dumping at the time, the city has had to rely largely on old photographs and city documents, she said.

“So far, this is the only one that fits the description,” she said. “We found a memo that said this was a dump and the city bought it for that purpose.”

DERM initially ordered the park tested after workers spotted melted glass, which fits the profile but does not necessarily confirm ash was dumped, said DERM spokesman Luis Espinoza.

“You have certain types of material that is being found,” he explained. “It might be too soon to tell if there is a pattern. Remember, you’re talking about 100-plus parks. You need more information. But you do have certain characteristics.”

The city is planning on scheduling a community meeting to address residents’ questions in December, Bravo said. “We’re working on setting the date,” she said.

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