Sonya Brown Wilson walks out of her front door to see rolling hills of hurricane debris and mounds of garbage that Miami-Dade sent to vacant land next to her Liberty City apartment complex. Cranes blare their safety warnings all day, as shorebirds pick through the refuse.
“The noise pollution is terrible. Sometimes they start as early as 5 [a.m.], and they may stop at 8:30 at night,” the retired special education teacher said during a Friday press conference protesting the dump. “I would just like everyone to be aware of what’s going on in our community. Hopefully someone can put an end to this.”
Hurricane Irma may have walloped a wide swath of Miami-Dade, but Wilson, fellow residents and community organizers are accusing Miami-Dade of being far more targeted when it comes to where the storm’s refuse gets stashed. They’re questioning why Miami-Dade chose to place more than 350,000 cubic yards of debris across the street from a tidy and lushly landscaped housing community there, rather than in more prosperous neighborhoods.
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“There’s a big concern about environmental racism,” said Esi Fynn-Obeng, a community organizer with the Miami Workers Center, a left-leaning group active in Miami-Dade politics. “That everybody else in Miami-Dade County can clear trash out of their communities, but they can dump it in communities of color.”
Miami-Dade denies the allegations, noting it has six large debris staging areas across the county, including one that backs up against a residential subdivision in the largely Hispanic Kendall area. But Miami-Dade leaders did yield to the criticism in Liberty City. On Wednesday, the county barred trucks from taking new loads of debris to the site, a county-owned lot off Northwest 25th Avenue that’s slated for redevelopment and called the Poinciana Industrial Park.
“The decision to close the Poinciana location as a delivery site for haulers was made to address concerns of the residents,” said Gayle Love, a spokeswoman for the county’s Solid Waste department. She said that while Miami-Dade has three post-storm dumping sites near residential neighborhoods, Poinciana has the smallest buffer between homes and debris.
“They’re very close,” Love said.
Miami-Dade operates just some of the county’s debris sites, with cities having their own smaller ones scattered throughout neighborhoods. Love said there are about 80 countywide, one measure of just how broad a hit South Florida took from a Sept. 10 storm large enough to down trees in Miami and Naples on the same day. That left Miami-Dade to take the lead in clearing debris through all of the areas outside of city limits, land that collectively serves as the largest “municipality” in the county.
She said securing sites for debris was part of a large scramble to clear debris from streets, a top resident demand after Irma. “We were making decisions on an emergency basis. There was no intention to pick a site that would in any way hurt someone,” she said. “We had to move three million cubic yards of material.”
Miami-Dade doesn’t expect to have the temporary dumps cleared until February. And while the Poinciana site is closed to new material, hills the size of three-story buildings remain. The downed tree branches and other vegetative debris is ground into a mulch there, then shipped by truck to a landfill outside of Miami-Dade. That makes the land an industrial site throughout the day, with heavy machinery hauling the material into an on-site chipper.
It all sits across Northwest 75th Street from Helen Clarke’s apartment in the housing complex called Northpark at Scott Carver. The debris began arriving in early October, and Miami-Dade had not notified Clarke or other residents about the new use for the vacant county land that had been a popular spot for walking dogs.
“It’s dusty,” Clarke said Friday. She uses a walker to move and said she’ll often wear a mask for daily walks to avoid mulch particles in the air. “My neighbor can’t breathe. She has asthma,” Clarke said. “And I have allergies also.”
Residents said the storm debris has attracted a menagerie of unwelcome creatures darting from the pop-up dump into their community.
“Since the dump has been here, there has been a spike of: Vermin. Rats. Snakes. Possum. Racoons,” said Fynn-Obeng, the Miami Workers Center organizer. “We want it removed.”