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Miami reopens a portion of Merrie Christmas Park

Miami has reopened part of one of its more popular parks as it continues to address soil contamination from toxic incinerator ash that closed five parks across the city.

The city has also completed inspecting all 112 of its parks and concluded that contamination exists in 11, or 10 percent of its parks.

On Friday, city workers moved part of a fence at Merrie Christmas Park that had blocked access to the five-acre park at the corner of South LeJeune Road and Barbarossa Avenue. The fence now encloses a smaller section on the western side of the park, where workers in September found elevated levels of arsenic, barium, copper and other dangerous heavy metals linked to ash. Testing showed no traces of contamination in the area reopened last week.

In December, the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) signed off on a study of the contamination, clearing the way for a clean-up plan. That plan will likely include removing tainted soil and trucking in new dirt. Trees will be surrounded with rubberized mulch glued in place. The city must also install monitoring wells.

Miami began sampling soil at the park in late summer after residents bitterly complained that the city had failed to address toxic waste found two years earlier at a nearby fire training facility on Jefferson Street. The site had once held an old municipal incinerator, nicknamed Old Smokey, that the city operated for more than four decades until complaints about pollution and a lawsuit from neighboring Coral Gables shut it down in 1970.

Residents who grew up in the area recalled smoke filled with ash spewing from its stack and feared the entire neighborhood might be contaminated. But the city repeatedly missed deadlines set by DERM to clean up the site.

Hoping to reassure neighbors, Commissioner Marc Sarnoff asked staff to inspect nearby parks and schools. The inspections first uncovered elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals at Blanche Park at 3045 Shipping Ave., followed by similar findings at Merrie Christmas Park, a former rock pit. DERM, which oversees environmental concerns in the city, then asked the city to inspect all 112 parks.

The request triggered a wave of park closings, as park after park showed signs of toxic waste from ash. Altogether, five parks were closed and a total of seven, including Brothers to the Rescue Park in the county, were found to have waste linked to ash. The ash could have come from at least three other municipal incinerators that once operated in the area and produced a sandy waste that was often mixed with debris to fill old quarries which, like Blanche and Merrie Christmas, later became parks. In addition, the city was already addressing contamination at four parks previously flagged.

In the survey, the city based its findings on previous reports, along with new inspections that relied on workers looking for traces of waste in surface soil.

“If we observed something, then we followed up with some sampling,” explained Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo. “Like at Douglas and Merrie Christmas (parks), those were discovered by visual observation.”

Contamination was ultimately found in six additional parks, including Bayfront, Billy Rolle, Curtis, Douglas and Southside parks, as well as Brothers to the Rescue Park. Other parks where contamination had earlier been found include Fern Isle, Grapeland Heights, Jose Marti and Virginia Key parks.

The city hopes to cover the cost for cleaning the parks, estimated in the millions, with money left over from $46 million set aside to pay for remediating the old Virginia Key landfill, Bravo said.

In an interlocal agreement with the county, any unspent money could be used for projects that qualify under the Utility Service Fee, a 7 percent fee tacked on to all county water and sewer bills, explained Paul Mauriello, assistant director of waste operations for the county’s Public Works and Waste Management Department. But determining whether projects qualify is complicated and requires approval from the county’s bond engineer as well as the county commission, he said.

So far, four parks qualify. They include Merrie Christmas, Blanche, Douglas and Southside, he said. But under the terms of the agreement, the money would not be available until the five-year project at Virginia Key is completed in 2018. So the city has asked the county to advance it the money.

“We’ve told them we will not have an estimate for the closure costs, that’s based on actual design, until end of April,” Mauriello said.

Costs for Merrie Christmas and Blanche could reach at least $500,000 each, Sarnoff said. Douglas Park, a far larger park of about 10 acres, could cost at least $3.5 million, he said.

“We should also take down the Community Center and put up a new one,” he said.

Bravo has estimated that Southside would also cost $500,000.

In the meantime, the city is still developing plans to address each park, a lengthy process that requires sampling by consultants followed by detailed instructions on how to address contamination, which DERM must then approve. Plans often undergo revisions. For example DERM has asked the city to also investigate the presence of methane at Douglas Park based on the type and amount of contamination found. The city should also inspect areas around the park, DERM said in a Feb. 19 letter.

At Curtis Park, another large recreational center that includes athletic fields and courts, DERM asked for additional soil samples. Bravo said the city intends to address some areas of the park quickly so popular facilities can reopen.

“It’s just a matter of doing some clean-up and laying asphalt to get to those areas and then at least that way we can make some elements accessible,” she said.

Southside Park, which covers 2.5 acres near a Metrorail stop with a community center and basketball courts, has undergone initial soil sampling. The tests found elevated levels of arsenic, barium, copper and lead scattered in the southeast, northeast and north central parts of the park and at depths up to 12 feet. Two monitoring wells found no groundwater contamination. The city, Bravo said, hopes to work on the park over the spring and summer so it can be reopened in the fall.

At Blanche Park, the first park to be flagged and one of the few to remain open because it is almost entirely covered with artificial turf, the city plans to install an impervious liner. But in a Feb. 19 letter, DERM also ordered the city to devise a “Dust Control and Air Monitoring Plan.” The plan must spell out how the city plans to control potentially toxic dust.

The city hopes to have both Blanche and Merrie Christmas completed and fully reopened by June, Sarnoff said.

“That’s our absolute drop-dead date and that gives us time to make mistakes,” he said, “so I believe it could be sooner.”

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