Miami-Dade County

Does toxic soil at Bayfront Park need cleanup? Leaders say no

Bayfront Park in downtown Miami
Bayfront Park in downtown Miami MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Faced with a potential bill for cleanup of contaminated soil that could exceed $1 million, with no financial help from the city of Miami, members of the trust that runs Bayfront Park are pushing back hard against environmental regulators and consultants, questioning why they’re being required to undertake a costly removal of low concentrations of pollutants they say appear to pose little real threat to the public.

The flap is the latest to emerge from a testing program in Miami parks, prompted by the discovery of toxins in the soil at a firefighting training facility in Coconut Grove, that has led to several park closures and extensive, multimillion-dollar cleanup operations across the city.

But unlike controversy that arose around contaminated neighborhood parks in Coconut Grove, where worried residents demanded that polluted soil be removed and trucked away — the most expensive option — the Bayfront Park dispute centers around the opposite contention: that being forced to clean up low levels of contaminants that seem unlikely to harm anyone is unreasonable and a burden on taxpayers.

At a tense meeting of the Bayfront Park Management Trust on Tuesday, some board members confronted city administrators and consultants who are following directions from Miami-Dade County environmental regulators over the necessity of the cleanup. One trust member, Ralph Duharte, a city commission aide, called the demands for a cleanup “a scam” to benefit the engineering industry, and proposed suing the county’s environmental agency. The trust chairman, City Commissioner Frank Carollo, asked the city attorney for a legal opinion on whether county orders could be challenged.

Warned by city administrators and their own executive director that the county would shut down the entire park if the board did not take action, however, the trust relented — to a point. They voted to pay consultants hired by the city $100,000 to design a cleanup plan, even as some board members continued to challenge the demands for an extensive cleanup.

“I don’t think this is fair. The whole issue with DERM is out of control,” Duharte said in an interview Wednesday, referring to the county environmental agency. “It’s abusive.”

The gist of the rebellion, according to park and trust officials: The contaminants unearthed by testing at the 32-acre Bayfront Park, including lead and arsenic, are concentrated in two limited areas and are low when compared to levels found in other city parks where incinerator ash was dumped decades ago. The two areas, which include a swath of lawn facing Biscayne Boulevard between Northeast First and Second streets that has been fenced off for months under county order, sit off paved pathways, have no park facilities like playgrounds, and see only light public use.

To be exposed to enough of the toxins to get sick, park users would have to consume substantial amounts of soil over a period of time, say Carollo and other trust members, citing city officials and environmental consultants.

“You would have to literally ingest the dirt to get sick,” said trust member Nathan Kurland. “I want the park to be a safe place for people to be. But we’d like to see some kind of sanity involved in this.”

County environmental officials were not at the trust meeting and said Wednesday that they could not immediately respond to concerns raised there. But a spokesman stressed that the agency follows protocols and guidelines established by the federal government.

City and Bayfront trust officials say the source of the contaminants is unknown. But they suspect that fill used to create mounds and other topographical features when the park was rebuilt in the 1980s under a plan by famed sculptor Isamu Noguchi may have been unclean. Thorough testing of fill was not done at the time, they say. Toxins might also have been left behind when the park was created artificially from fill in the 1920s. The Biscayne Boulevard edge was then the city’s working waterfront, noted assistant city manager Alice Bravo.

What is certain, Bravo said, is that federal and county regulations require “remediation” — typically involving either total or partial removal of contaminated soil, followed by installation of a textile “cap” and covering with clean fill — when toxins exceed certain prescribed levels, which is what happened at Bayfront Park. Those levels can vary depending on the use of a site. Permissible levels are higher in areas like parks, where visitors spend only limited time and thus receive less exposure, than in residential areas, for instance.

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 contaminants may not present a definitive health risk.

“At the end of the day, there are regulatory issues which we will work out based on the test results,” Bravo said.

Compounding the issue is the uncertainly over the ultimate cost of cleanup, which consultants SCS Engineers have said could range from several hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million depending on how much soil is removed, as well as what some board members complain has been the city’s refusal so far to help foot the bill. They note that the self-sustaining park gets no city money, operates on a tight budget generated by events and has in past years contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to city coffers.

The park trust has already paid more than $70,000 for testing. Paying for the remediation would require dipping deeply into park reserves, officials say.

Carollo said Wednesday that the disagreements have delayed a resolution of the contamination issue at the park, even as the city has reopened some closed parks, including Merrie Christmas Park in the Grove, which was reinaugurated this month after an 18-month, $1.2 million cleanup. Remediation work is either under way or close to starting at several other parks, including Douglas and Curtis parks, according to Bravo.

“The whole issue has been moving along extremely slowly,” Carollo said. “The only city park that the city has not been paying for any of the work, and where there is no plan for the remediation, is Bayfront Park. This is expensive, especially for an organization that doesn’t receive any money from the city of Miami.”

But Bravo said the independent trust is ultimately responsible for management and upkeep of Bayfront Park, and the decision on how best to proceed, and how much to spend, is up to its board.

“They’re in control of the property. They are the managing authority of the property. They are the entity responsible for the property. So they can decide what they can afford to do,” Bravo said.

Bayfront Park trust officials say they need to get any work done within months to avoid interference with their biggest event, the Ultra Music Festival in March, which funds much of its operations.

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