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Toxic soil closes second Miami park; more tests ordered

Miami will begin testing soil at all its parks after a second Coconut Grove playground turned up melted glass and toxic metal that suggest it may have once been used to dump incinerator ash.

Officials promptly closed Merrie Christmas Park on Tuesday after county environmental workers found elevated levels of copper, barium, arsenic and cadmium, said Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo.

The grassy, bowl-shaped field frequently used for kid’s soccer games on South Le Jeune Road has a popular playground tucked in the corner.

The city now has 30 days to draft a more intense sampling plan, but Bravo said she hopes to have it done by the end of the week.

The discovery comes amidst increasing scrutiny over how the city handles environmental concerns.

More than two years ago, workers discovered contaminated soil around the site of the city’s old municipal incinerator at 3425 Jefferson St. Despite warnings from county environmental officials, the city repeatedly missed deadlines to come up with a plan for dealing with it.

Earlier this year, a University of Miami graduate student came across the report and shared it with residents, triggering bitter complaints.

In response, the county ordered soil sampling within a one-mile radius of the incinerator. City commissioner Marc Sarnoff also asked the city to test area parks as well as schools including F.S. Tucker Elementary, Carver Elementary and Middle Schools and Coral Gables Senior High.

Most of those samples have showed nearly normal levels of heavy metals, although tests for dioxins are still pending. But samples taken from Blanche Park at 3045 Shipping Ave. revealed levels of arsenic more than 30 times what the state allows. The city and county now are studying samples taken from more than two dozen spots in the park.

On Tuesday, Mayor Tomas Regalado said the city will test all its parks to ensure they’re safe.

“This is something we inherited and this is something that the city should have done, not one year ago, but 20 years ago. But be that as it may, we are committed to doing the testing,” he said. “We are committed to do testing in all parks in the city of Miami.”

As part of its testing, the city will first research the history of its parks to try to determine what they were before they became parks, Sarnoff said.

For instance, records show Blanche Park had been a limestone pit and was purchased in 1943 to dump trash before it was turned into a park in


Bravo said she has been unable to document the origins of Merrie Christmas Park so far.

The park was named after the daughter of former Mayor Randy Christmas, who served in the mid 1950s.

While ash spread by air has not turned up serious contamination, dumped ash can pose far more serious concerns, said Dr. Stephen M. Roberts, director of the Center for Environmental & Health Toxicology at the University of Florida.

“Once (metals from ash smoke) get deposited, they don’t break down. They’re metals. They might wash away or percolate into the soil, but it’s not very high. Typically in these types of situations, the bigger problem is what they did with the ash,” he said. “If you find places where they dumped ash, those can be a problem. You have to pay attention to that because the metal concentrations can be pretty high and depending on how close they are to the surface. Are they right out there where people can be exposed or are they buried?”

Blanche Park remains open because it is covered almost entirely by artificial turf and asphalt. But Merrie Christmas Park has no such cap.

On Monday, Bravo said a park ranger shooed away visitors. Workers will fence it off Wednesday and post signs warning visitors, she said.

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