Curtis Park is the latest Miami playfield to be found with contaminated soil, but will remain open

Soil at a sixth Miami park contains the same toxic chemicals linked to incinerator ash that shut down four other parks and briefly closed a fifth.

City officials found the contamination last month at Curtis Park, a sprawling recreational complex in Allapattah with football and baseball fields, a track, basketball courts and a playground just north of the Miami River that sits about a mile and a half from where an old municipal incinerator once operated.

The park, which is home field to the Police Athletic League’s popular Miami Jets, remains open because much of it is covered by artificial turf, concrete or rubber track, said Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo.

The city now trying to come up with a way to keep the busy park open while it figures out how to address arsenic, lead, antimony and other chemicals found.

“I have recommended that they keep it open while they’re doing the digging and while they figure out what’s really been affected,” said City Commissioner Wilfredo “Willy” Gort, whose district includes the park.

The park lies directly west from where Miami’s 20th Street incinerator operated for three decades until it was designated an environmental hazard and shut down about 1975. Dioxins, considered the most toxic of chemicals, have been found in soil around the incinerator site, which was designated a “brownfield” and slated for clean-up. In 2003, scientists also found dioxins in sediment at the bottom of Wagoner Creek, a tributary of the river that they suspect may have come from the incinerator.

City and county officials have stepped up their scrutiny of pollution from old incinerators since late summer, when residents began complaining that the city was taking too long to clean up contamination found near another shuttered incinerator in Coconut Grove. Old memos indicate that at least three parks, including Blanche, Merrie Christmas and Douglas Park, once were used to dump ash that collected at the bottom of the incinerators and contained waste rich in toxic heavy metals that could not be burned. But no such records have been found for Curtis Park, Bravo said.

Records, however, do show that land between the river and the park gradually filled in over the years, she said. It’s not clear whether that fill occurred naturally from silting, or dumping from the city.

“That’s the only indication of anything we’ve found,” Bravo said. “And again, that may not have been a manmade act. It could have been naturally occurring.”

City consultants first spotted waste suspected to be from incinerator ash in late December, according to a Jan. 6 letter sent to the city from DERM. Samples taken a week later then tested positive for the metals. The contaminated soil, Bravo said, was found in “just a few different isolated areas, so if we can get those areas covered, we can keep that park open while we’re doing our testing.”

The city’s first plan to address the contamination was rejected, Bravo said. But DERM spokesman Luis Espinoza said the county will be working Wednesday to finalize a workable plan.

“We’re working with the city so that they can keep the park open and address the areas where solid waste was found,” he said.

After complaints about the Grove contamination, the city began inspecting nearby schools and parks and initially turned up contamination at Blanche Park, a small park popular with kids and dogs in the compact neighborhood. The city capped a parking lot with asphalt and because nearly all the remaining area was covered with artificial turf, left the park open.

Within weeks, similar contamination was found at Merrie Christmas Park. But because toxic ash was found close to the surface and throughout the sloping fields once used to quarry coral rock, officials decided to close it. Toxic heavy metals in the ash are not easily absorbed, but can be dangerous if ingested, which is a particular risk to small children.

Then in September, after the county suggested Miami inspect all 112 of its parks, the same ash-like contamination was found in November at Douglas Park, a 10-acre site just outside Coral Gables. It December, tests turned up the same contamination at Billy Rolle Domino Park in the 3400 block of Grand Avenue and Southside Park at 100 SW 11th Street.

All four parks remain closed while the city tries to come up with a plan for addressing the contamination.

Bravo said the city is nearly done inspecting all the parks and so far only the six show obvious signs of contamination. Results should be submitted to the county by the end of the week, she said.

“Anything we’ve uncovered, we’ve taken action on. We’ve tried to be as proactive as possible,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean DERM won’t ask for additional sampling once they get the list.”