This holiday season has been frustrating for Ralph Rosado, because one of the gifts he would most like to give his young boys — access to their neighborhood park — is out of his control.
This Friday will mark the second consecutive Christmas the unpaved portion of Douglas Park, a 10-acre complex of playing fields and courts, has been closed to the public. The park was one of seven in Miami where, more than two years ago, inspectors found unsafe levels of toxins in the soil.
In the many months since, city contractors have sanitized and reopened three smaller parks in Coconut Grove, and begun work on a fourth in Brickell. But nothing changed at Douglas Park other than the height of the uncut grass until this month, when Rosado and his neighbors donned shirts during a City Hall protest that said, “All we want for Christmas is our park back.”
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“This has been going on for 25 months at this point and it’s not clear who’s dragging it on,” Rosado said last week, his fingers entwined in the raggedy fencing erected around the perimeter of the park where he once played as a child. “There’s been some finger pointing, but hopefully it moves on in some substantive way.”
Fix My Park
graffiti at Douglas Park
Following the protest by Coral Gate and Golden Pines neighbors, city officials moved quickly to end a stalemate with county environmental regulators over a $3.4 million plan to remediate the park. Final plans were approved by Miami-Dade’s Division of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) on Dec. 17, but Douglas Park will remained closed until next December, if not longer. Meanwhile, the county has yet to approve a plan to reopen the baseball field at Curtis Park, a sprawling athletic compound in Allapattah.
Miami officials say they’re doing all they can to safely reopen the last of the contaminated parks, and it’s the sheer size of Douglas and Curtis parks — not their location — that required extensive prep work and delayed visible progress. But as the city and county haggle over how to contain contaminants — and at what cost — Miami’s less affluent communities have been forced to wait the longest to reclaim the most basic of amenities.
“The order of priority in which parks get cleaned, people see that and you can’t try to pretend that doesn’t exist,” said Ken Russell, Miami’s newest commissioner, who got his start in politics by advocating for the cleanup of contaminated Merrie Christmas Park across the street from his home. “There’s politics involved. There’s economics involved. And it shouldn’t be that way.”
$11 million estimated cost of cleaning Miami’s seven contaminated parks
Concerns with Miami’s parks first surfaced in 2013 after a University of Miami graduate student researching the construction of a controversial trolley garage in West Coconut Grove discovered the city had sat for years on potential contamination concerns related to ash spewed by an old incinerator.
Fears initially centered around whether airborne toxins from “Old Smokey” could have caused health problems in the surrounding black community. Those concerns are still being pursued today. But ground contamination at the old incinerator site — now a firefighter training facility — led the city to test surrounding public spaces and then parks throughout the entire city. Tests uncovered unsafe levels of dioxins and toxic metals like arsenic and barium in the soil at seven locations.
Health concerns tied to the contaminants include skin disorders, cancer and brain damage, but experts say the risks of long-term exposure to toxins buried in soil, while serious, are minimal. Cleanup plans have generally included hauling out some contaminated soil while covering contaminated areas with special liners and one to two feet of clean fill in order to prevent exposure. Monitoring wells have been installed at several sites to ensure toxins don’t leak into groundwater.
I’d be more than happy to eat some of the soil, if it makes people feel better
Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez
Remediating and reopening parks has proven a lengthy, difficult and frustrating process. Last February, Miami commissioners groused about having to spend $10 million to keep the public safe from soil they’d been told would have to be ingested regularly for years to become a health hazard.
“I’d like to sponsor for charity a soil-eating competition of elected officials,” Commissioner Francis Suarez said during that meeting. “I’d be more than happy to eat some of the soil, if it makes people feel better.”
Similar dismissals came this summer from the board of the city’s semi-autonomous Bayfront Park Management Trust, where one member called DERM’s process a “scam.” Nevertheless, the board recently approved a $1.2 million plan to remediate portions of the park along Biscayne Boulevard.
At Curtis Park along the north bank of the Miami River, work to clean and reopen a playground area is under way, but the city and DERM are still trying to come to terms on a plan to safely and legally control storm water discharge. The same issue held up plans to clean and reopen Douglas Park, as well as differences over the amount of clean fill that needed to be shipped in and the type of liner placed over contaminated soil.
“It’s a shame,” said Miami Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort, whose district includes Curtis Park. “The problem is, any time we present a project idea to DERM, they want more.”
Wilbur Mayorga, chief of the county’s environmental monitoring and restoration division, said the agency wants to reopen the parks as quickly as possible, but not by bending laws or jeopardizing anyone’s safety. DERM has frequently warned the city for blowing deadlines.
The department is aware of how important it is to restore these contaminated parks, number one in a safe manner
Wilbur Mayorga, chief of the county’s environmental monitoring and restoration division
“The department is aware of how important it is to restore these contaminated parks, number one in a safe manner. And we also are very aware of the need to streamline the review process to ensure we expedite it,” he said. “Of course, we rely on the city's consultant to submit the required documents.”
In the case of Douglas Park, regulators said the city’s plans were rejected twice because they didn’t comply with county laws. It wasn’t until last week, after Russell sat several times with the Miami administrators in charge of crating environmental cleanup, that DERM received a plan it felt comfortable approving. The city also plans to invest millions into improvements at the park, including new playing fields and a new clubhouse.
“We try to move it as quickly as we can. I'm as frustrated as the residents that we don't get these things done faster,” City Manager Daniel Alfonso said. “I’m not going to point fingers. We've worked as diligently as we could.”