Miami-Dade County

Soil tests, parks and lots of history

There is an enhanced version of this story available. Read it here.

The playing fields at Ives Estates Park, one of the newest gems in Miami-Dade County’s extensive necklace of parks, are set amid 100 acres of rolling green topography and forest-like clumps of trees that barely quiet the din of Interstate 95 traffic nearby.

There’s a reason for the unusual shape of the terrain in otherwise pancake-flat South Florida.

Like numerous county and municipal parks across Miami-Dade, Ives Estates was built atop and around an old trash dump.

In a place where property is expensive and public budgets tight, local government officials looking to build parks have for decades turned to reclaimed land, old quarries, ash pits, trash dumps and bits left over from development and road building, much of it often contaminated.

The 5-year-old Ives Estates Park represents the state of the art in land reclamation: Rigorous testing was conducted to determine exactly what was in the ground. Caps of soil, fill and synthetic membranes were engineered to safely contain the trash and hazardous materials buried beneath. The park building has a sophisticated ventilation system to eliminate methane seeping out of the ground from organic decomposition, and an alarm system should the highly flammable gas build up.

But it wasn’t always so.

Until the 1970s, when federal action put a stop to the practice, county and municipal trash and garbage was deposited in abandoned quarries and largely unregulated, unlined dumps and landfills. That material was often joined in a toxic stew by ash from at least four municipal incinerators that operated across the county as well as illegal, free-lance dumping, fouling sites from Homestead to Virginia Key and northeast Miami-Dade’s Ojus neighborhood, the location today of Ives Estates Park.

Some of the sites were simply covered with soil or fill of uncertain origins, seeded with grass, and declared parks decades ago. There was little to no testing at the time, no standard for safe reclamation, and no good record of what lay beneath the surface.

That legacy resurfaced in recent weeks with discoveries of high levels of soil contaminants in two city of Miami parks in Coconut Grove. At least one, Blanche Park, appears to have once served as a dumping ground for ash from the city’s notorious Old Smokey incinerator, which operated nearby for nearly 50 years until the city closed it in 1970. The other, Merrie Christmas Park, which remains closed while soil samples are evaluated, is a former rock pit dating back to the 1920s.

The discoveries have prompted county regulators to order testing of all 112 of Miami’s parks, now underway. Available evidence so far, including results of ongoing testing of county-owned parks, suggests the overwhelming majority of county and municipal parks in Miami-Dade are safe and clean.

But the new, troubling finds are not anomalies. In the past 15 years, since new rules and standards were enacted by the county, potentially unsafe levels of hazardous materials such as arsenic and lead have been found in the soil or groundwater in several other long-established parks, requiring emergency closures and costly cleanups running into the millions of dollars.

Those include Gwen Cherry Park, a former dump site, and Olinda Park, which the city of Miami used as an incinerator ash deposit, both in Northwest Miami-Dade; Fern Isle Park, astride State Road 836, where the city illegally dumped construction debris; Hammocks Community Park in West Kendall, where remediation of arsenic-laced soil will soon begin; and the former Bicentennial Park, the site of the old Port of Miami downtown, which is being transformed into a home for new art and science museums.

In the mid-2000s, the city also undertook a massive redo of the contiguous Grapeland Heights park and Melreese golf course, together the former site of an extensive ash deposit and landfill near Miami International Airport. Tons of dirty soil and solid waste were hauled away and a new cap of clean fill and dirt was installed, and portions of the border between the two parks were covered in a geotextile seal — techniques similar to those used at Ives Estates.

The creation of Bicentennial Park out of the old port’s docks and boat slips in the early 1970s was in many ways typical. Contaminants, likely from port operations and above-ground oil storage tanks, were left in the ground. So were two buried fuel tanks from gas stations once located at the site. And there were no standards to certify the materials used to fill in the slips as safe, as exist today.

“The fill was just dumped in there,’’ recalled Jack Luft, the former city planning director. “Asphalt from roads, concrete bits from the piers that they broke up — they dumped in anything they could find.’’

How much of a health risk the parks’ histories represent is unclear, though.

Soil contaminants, some of which, like arsenic, can be naturally occurring, become an issue mostly if buried material is exposed . Even then, risk levels do not correspond to a hard-and-fast number, but depend on factors ranging from length and frequency of exposure to the age of park users. The county’s division of environmental regulation, known as DERM, establishes a green line below which concentrations of arsenic and other contaminants in soil are considered safe. Above that, cases are referred to county health department toxicologists for a determination. Conservative county ordinances can require remediation even when the presence of contaminants may not present a definitive health risk.

A clearer threat is groundwater contamination. Though it usually represents a health hazard for humans only if drinking-water wells are present in the area, plumes of chemicals like ammonia leaching from solid waste into surrounding surface waters can be harmful to fish and wildlife.

After the 2011 discovery of lead levels substantially above the legal maximum in the soil at Olinda Park — a chance find that resulted from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency testing of the neighborhood around a contaminated site — county health officials surveyed local families to find how often they used the playground, and how long they typically lingered. About 200 children were tested for lead, but all got a clean bill of health, DERM officials said.

“We had capped it with clean fill but that had eroded over time,’’ county parks director Jack Kardys said. “If you disturb the soil, you start getting these readings. We reacted very quickly to make sure it was safe.’’

At cost of $1.6 million, the unpaved portion of the park was scraped clean and entirely re-covered with a clay liner topped by fill certified as clean. The park reopened in June.

“The park ended up beautiful,’’ Kardys said.

But DERM officials say such incidents, and the frequency in which tests would find garbage and trash beneath county parks slated for work, prompted them to take a more systematic approach.

Since 2011, the agency has been quietly testing all Miami-Dade’s recreational parks and a sampling of municipal parks for contamination.

“We noticed we were evaluating a park and we would find solid waste under the soil,’’ said Wilbur Mayorga, chief of pollution control for DERM. “We asked ourselves, how do we know we don’t have that in other parks?”

The agency, which has its own lab, has so far tested 55 county parks, starting with those that had been quarries as well as the oldest ones — the likeliest to have some form of contamination. On a parallel track, it also began testing newer parks in random order.

To date, contamination requiring remediation has been uncovered in just one park, Hammocks Community in West Kendall, where elevated levels of arsenic were found in the soil. Because health officials determined the levels do not pose a health risk, the park remains open. But the levels exceed county maximums, so the park, built in 1986, has been slated for remediation using $2 million reprogrammed from county bond money. The park will be topped with a foot of clean soil.

DERM investigators could not determine the source of the arsenic. They suspect a herbicide once routinely used at county parks but since discontinued because its residues, which contain arsenic, lingered in soil, Mayorga said. After testing the surrounding neighborhood and an adjacent middle school, they determined that contamination was limited to the park.

Among the sites determined to be safe so far under DERM’s parks-testing program: the tot-lot at Ives Estates and A.D. Barnes Park, located near the old city of Coral Gables incinerator along Southwest 72nd Avenue, and 16 city of Miami parks, including Elizabeth Virrick Park and the Kirk Monroe Tennis Center, both of which are in Coconut Grove.

The agency can quickly determine whether levels of arsenic in a park are anomalous because it has conducted extensive testing across the county to determine baseline or “background’’ levels of the substance, which is naturally found in higher concentrations in marine sediment and thus also in coastal barrier islands like Miami Beach and Key Biscayne, Mayorga said.

Because it functions as the environmental regulator for the entire county, DERM also approves all plans for remediation of contaminated sites, including all county and municipal parks, ensuring that the latest science and engineering techniques are used to evaluate contamination and design fixes, a process Mayorga described as “rigorous.’’

That level of extensive testing and oversight should give residents confidence in the safety of local parks, Mayorga said.

“I assure you, look anywhere else in the country. Nobody has done this level of effort. Nobody,’’ he said.

Still, sometimes issues can persist even in sites that have been remediated under modern standards.

At Melreese golf club, the old subsoil was exposed in spots because of erosion, possibly from landscaping work or rainstorms. Tests showed lead concentrations that although low, were sufficient to warrant corrective action, DERM concluded. At adjacent Grapeland, site of a popular water park and baseball fields, the city of Miami failed to conduct required monitoring to ensure buried contaminants aren’t leaching into the groundwater even after repeated requests from DERM that it do so. The city also failed to monitor groundwater after remediation at Fern Isle, which abuts a canal that leads to the Miami River.

And at Mayor Roscoe Warren Park, a park built atop a reclaimed landfill in Homestead, the town failed to submit to DERM documentation of the remediation work and ignored follow-up requests by the agency for four years.

Those issues, some of which were first reported in Miami New Times, underscore another fact: Because contaminated soil and waste remain in the ground after remediation, periodic inspections, monitoring and management and maintenance plans are essential so that integrity of the work is maintained.

But DERM’s ability to get other government agencies to comply with its orders is limited. Even though the county could sue, it has been loath to do so, preferring to work cooperatively.

Miami officials, however, essentially blew off DERM demands for action in several cases, including the contamination findings at the Old Smokey site, today the site of a fire-training facility. The site is in the heart of the historic black neighborhood known as the West Grove, between Armbrister Park, where kids play, and the Barnyard, a community center for children.

The city did not follow up on the results for two years, until University of Miami law students and faculty researching an unrelated lawsuit stumbled across the soil test reports. That led DERM to the wider testing that uncovered contamination at Blanche and Merrie Christmas parks in Coconut Grove.

But UM law professor Anthony Alfieri, whose students uncovered the test results, says Miami officials have ignored and buried findings of contamination in its parks, and the county has been remiss in not cracking down on the city for its failure to take action.

Alfieri said he welcomes DERM efforts to test more systematically, but says the history of contamination at park sites warrants a far more aggressive effort, including health evaluations of residents who may have been exposed to toxic soil, water and air for decades.

“Neither the city nor the county have demonstrated they’re credible, competent or committed to taking the actions needed,’’ Alfieri said. “They are always a step behind and always less than candid about their findings.

“One of themes of this investigation for us is that neither the city or the county are likely to know where all of the ash from these incinerators was dumped. There should be a grassroots community education campaign. People have a right to be informed. People have a right to a comprehensive assessment of the amount of contamination in these parks. This is not 1925 and it’s not 1970.’’

Earlier this month, after the Grove findings received substantial news coverage in the Miami Herald and other news outlets, DERM and Miami officials met to go through a checklist of chores the city must complete at Melreese, Grapeland, Fern Isle and Jose Marti Park, where contamination was found in a small area, possibly a remnant of marine industrial activities on the river, Mayorga said.

The city now plans to conduct periodic inspections of the ground at Grapeland and Melreese, as well as regular monitoring for ammonia in the Comfort Canal next to Fern Isle Park, said Miami’s environmental compliance coordinator, Harry James. The city also plans to excavate soil that recent follow-up testing found to be contaminated with arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene, a carcinogenic compound, at Fern Isle’s western end. The city may also need to remove soil from and re-cap some areas at Melreese, he said.

Once the testing of county and Miami city parks gives DERM a clear handle on remaining contamination issues, Miami-Dade officials hope there will few other unpleasant surprises. Rules in place since the 1990s require that any land destined to become a county park be rigorously tested for contaminants. That includes the use of ground-penetrating radar to search for buried waste, said Kardys, the county parks director.

That’s especially important since many new neighborhood parks are the result of requirements that developers set aside land for that purpose, Kardys said. Typically, that land is the piece of property used to dump construction waste, which is relatively simple to clean up — a task that falls to the developer.

But sometimes residual contamination remains.

When it built Westwind Lakes Park in a Kendall subdivision, the county discovered methane leaking from the ground because of buried organic waste, requiring installation of a venting system, Kardys said.

“When you get into suburban areas, development comes first and then, at the end of the process, the park is built. It’s not the finest real estate,’’ Kardys noted.

But reclaiming land is the most cost-effective way to create new parks, he said, especially at a time when virgin land is scarce and prohibitively expensive for cities and the county to acquire, Kardys said.

Because contamination drives down prices, turning dirty sites into parks is a relative bargain even after factoring in the cost of remediation, Kardys said.

Ives Estates is the biggest and most recent example, he said. The property once served as the city of Miami Beach’s notorious Ojus landfill, but was closed in the 1970s, after which it became a site for illegal dumping.

“We went in eyes wide open and knew exactly what we were up against. We were able to get it done right, and it was a wise investment,’’ Kardys said.

There will likely be more to come. The old landfill on Virginia Key, for decades until its closure in 1976 a dump site for city of Miami trash and incinerator ash and uncontrolled illegal dumping, has long been slated for conversion into a regional park. After years of delays, the city and county finalized an agreement to proceed with evaluation and remediation. An engineering firm was recently hired to test the site.

The county is also eyeing a site that was once home to the Hialeah incinerator at Northwest 58th Street for a regional soccer park. After the county’s waste-management department restored natural water circulation at the former ash pit and landfill on the site, birds and wildlife began returning to what was in effect a restored habitat, an EPA report says.

In time, Kardys expects that the yawning rock-mining pits that line the northwest border of the county will become public recreational lakes surrounded by parks.

“It makes sense to repurpose these areas,’’ Kardys said. “We need to take advantage of these opportunities, so long as it’s done right and it’s done safely.’’