County closes part of popular baseball park after finding incinerator ash

County officials closed part of a park that once sat in the shadow of a Coral Gables municipal incinerator after finding debris linked to toxic ash.

Early soil tests at Brothers to the Rescue Park, just off Coral Way and Southwest 72nd Avenue, showed levels of dangerous heavy metals below thresholds for hazardous chemicals, said Luis Espinoza, a spokesman for Miami-Dade County’s Division of Environmental Resources Management. But county officials still decided to fence off areas with debris until further testing can be done, he said.

Workers first spotted the debris near the ball fields in late December and are now developing a plan to address it, Espinoza said. The park, which is divided into four baseball diamonds, hosts many baseball leagues and teams.

The county will also test land directly south of the park at 2420 SW 72nd Ave., where Miami-Dade Transit now operates the Coral Way Bus Wash Facility.

Soil sampling should take three weeks, said parks spokeswoman Doris Howe. The department then has three months to draft a plan for addressing any findings, she said.

For those who grew up playing at the park’s ball fields, renamed by the county in 1997, the findings come as little surprise.

“Back in the early 70's, I played Little League there at the park and we used to climb the fence and explore the wide open ash fields,” said Coral Gables resident Paul Martin.

Piles of ash, he said, filled the area and reached 10 to 15 feet high.

“We’d climb the fence that separated it and look for foul balls that went over the fence. It was gritty, like ash, with broken glass and all sorts of terrible things kids shouldn’t play in.”

He said kids were warned to stay out of the ash fields “because it was dirty and they didn’t want us to get cut on glass.”

He said he never became ill after playing in the area, but he added: “Nobody ever said, ‘Oh, you can die from this. It’s toxic.’”

DERM began quietly inspecting county parks in 2011 after the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection discovered contamination at Olinda Park while investigating the neighborhood around a contaminated site.

This latest finding comes amid increased scrutiny after Miami discovered contamination linked to buried ash in six of its parks. The discovery was triggered after residents complained the city was taking too long to address contamination near another municipal incinerator, which shut down in the 1970s and operated in a largely black neighborhood on Jefferson Street in the West Grove.

Miami has so far closed four parks and part of a fifth while it determines how to handle contamination that contains arsenic, lead, barium and several other toxic heavy metals. A sixth park where contamination was found remains open.

Until just eight years ago, an old smokestack stood near Brothers to the Rescue Park. Coral Gables used it to incinerate trash outside its boundaries. But in 2000, neighbors demanded the city remove it when they learned Coral Gables planned to move its maintenance yard to their neighborhood to make way for the upscale Village of Merrick Park on South Le Jeune Road.

Angered because they were not notified about the yard, the Waterway Homeowners Association, led by president Anthony Lopez, pressured the city to agree to a number of conditions.

“That whole area used to be a bunch of trees and vegetation and they came in one day and just leveled it. We said what the heck? And when we figured out what they’d done, that they’d sold the land by Merrick Park and were bringing (the maintenance yard) here, we said whoa!” Lopez explained.

In addition to limiting the hours for auto repairs and routes for truck traffic, neighbors got the city to agree to demolish the incinerator building, burn chambers and smokestack. The city also agreed to install two wells to monitor pollution.

The demolition, however, was stalled when lethal dioxins were discovered in the stack. The stack was finally dismantled piecemeal, rather than imploded, and completely removed by January 2006.

Lopez was surprised to hear Tuesday about the ash waste found in the park, where he coached his son’s Little League team.

“All of that was supposed to be supervised by DERM,” he said, adding that the park was closed for renovations between 2005 and 2006. “We’re not the experts. We just watched it and supervised and made sure people who were supposed to be involved were involved.”

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