It began with lead and arsenic in the soil at a small Coconut Grove dog park. Then elevated levels of barium and copper beneath a sloping lawn near residential Coral Gables. Followed by antimony and iron around the playing courts of Douglas Park.
One by one, the city of Miami shut down a series of parks starting last September after tests showed elevated levels of toxins in the soil. The closures alarmed residents and embarrassed city officials, who’d known for years about contamination concerns linked to an old West Grove incinerator.
All 112 of Miami’s parks were tested, and portions or all of seven closed for clean-up. One year later, the city is prepared to spend an estimated $11million — more than triple initial projections — to remediate and reopen the tainted parks. Their plan is simple, though to some disconcerting: leave the contaminated soil in place and bury it two feet below the surface.
“This two-foot option is not only an option we’re applying at all our parks, it’s the option that the county applies itself at their parks that get remediated,” said Deputy City Manager Alice Bravo. “This is the standard in South Florida.”
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Under the plan, two feet of clean fill will be placed over contaminated soil. If the fill is less than two feet thick, a liner is also spread between the soil and the clean fill, explained Wilbur Mayorga, chief of the county’s Division of Environmental Monitoring and Restoration. New grass, artificial turf or recycled rubber mulch or mats top the fill, although those options are purely aesthetic, he said. Plans can vary from park to park, depending on the terrain and type of structures in place.
“The approach is not new,” Mayorga said, explaining that both federal and state environmental rules allow clean-up methods that “rely on a cap or a barrier to eliminate any exposure to contaminated soil.”
Some parks, like Blanche Park, a small neighborhood park popular with tots and dogs, and Curtis Park, a much larger sprawling sports complex north of the Miami River, will have wells to monitor groundwater and ensure contamination doesn’t spread. At Merrie Christmas Park on South LeJeune Road in Coconut Grove, the city plans to move between a foot and two feet of contaminated soil from one area to another to level the park according to new design plans, Mayorga said.
Working with county regulators, the city has to continue to conduct inspections of the parks after reopening them. Covenants will also be attached to the land to warn future generations of the contamination, Mayorga said.
“But at the end of the day, all contaminated soil in the park will have the required and approved engineering controls on top,” he said.
To date, the city has reopened only Blanche Park and has had its plans approved by the county for Merrie Christmas Park, half of which is still closed. Plans for Curtis, Douglas, Billie Rolle, Southside and Bayfront parks still need the county’s approval. But the city has surveyed the extent of the contamination at most parks, perhaps marking the end of a long period of uncertainty about the city’s problems.
Concerns about toxins and contamination first arose in 2011, when the city discovered contaminated soil at a firefighter training facility located at an old, defunct Jefferson Street incinerator dubbed Old Smokey by residents in the West Grove. County regulators ordered the city to find out exactly what was polluting the soil and address it, but it took two years to issue a report, which showed elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals like barium and lead.
Even then, the contamination only became public knowledge after a University of Miami graduate student stumbled upon it.
Under intensified scrutiny from the university, residents and county regulators, Miami officials began sampling soils in a one-mile radius. When contaminants were discovered at nearby Blanche Park and then Merrie Christmas Park, the county ordered the city to test all its parks, setting off the discovery of five other contaminated sites.
The city’s slow response has fostered cynicism from residents near the parks and activists, who continue to distrust Miami’s handling of the matter. A group of residents around Merrie Christmas Park is protesting plans to redistribute some of the toxic soil beneath the park’s surface, and say they only learned about the details from the city’s contractor.
Anthony Alfieri, a UM law professor whose Environmental Justice Project unearthed contamination concerns, said the city continues to keep residents in the dark about its plans and actions. The city, by designating its contaminated parks as “Brownfields” this July in order to receive reimbursement from the federal government for clean-up efforts, increased its obligation to seek public input. But Alfieri said it doesn’t appear the city has done any outreach.
“The city and the county are clearly committed to a policy of non-accountability,” Alfieri said. “And they ensure that by failing to reach out to the community and inform the community.”
Ken Russell, a woodcarver who lives next to Merrie Christmas Park, has loudly criticized the city’s plan and says he worries about the health of his three children, ages 12, 2 and 5 months. He says he understands that capping toxic soil is safe but is frustrated that the city’s plans will move contaminated material from the western edge of the park to some depressed areas that are currently closed off to the public but apparently untainted.
Another issue for Russell is the county has marked his home as being located within a quarter-mile of a contamination site, which he and other neighbors worry lowers their property values. He said if the city is digging up soil, it ought to simply remove it.
“The city did this dumping. Even though it was 50 years ago, it’s their doing and it’s their responsibility to clean it up,” he said. “We want a clean-up, not a cover-up.”
Bravo stressed that the city’s plans are safe and sound, and she said the cost of removing toxic soils is simply too steep. Bravo said estimates put the price of removing soil at Merrie Christmas Park at $3million, though the city isn’t sure about the depth of the tainted soil.
By designating six closed parks as Brownfields — Blanche Park, the first to close, was reopened months ago — the city can apply for reimbursement of expenses up to $500,000 for each park. The city is also hoping that dredge from the port tunnel dig can be used as fill if it’s left over from a bond-funded project at Virginia Key.
But even then, the final price tag for clean-up could be in the millions, and Bravo said the city doesn’t have the money to remove the tainted soil.
“When this material is removed it has to be taken to a certain dump site approved by the county,” said Bravo. “The disposal is very expensive.”
Russell has in recent weeks gone back and forth with Commissioner Marc Sarnoff over the city’s plans. Sarnoff, who lives across the street from Blanche Park, defended the city’s handling of the closed parks. He said he has talked at least a dozen times with homeowners groups about what the city is doing to address clean-up issues, and said the city held two public hearings with scientists in attendance to answer questions when concerns were first raised.
Sarnoff said he understands fretting about real estate values — his home is also marked as being next to a contaminated site — but believes they’re overblown. He and Bravo say the city has done its best to publicize the issue, but are trying to schedule another meeting to explain what’s happening with its closed parks.
“I guess you can always do more,” said Sarnoff. “But is the city doing the job it should be doing? In my estimation it’s doing a credible job.”
Blanche Park, 3045 Shipping Ave.: The neighborhood playground and dog park remained open after contaminated soil was found in September 2013 because it was almost entirely covered with astro turf. Workers paved a parking area and installed monitoring wells to test groundwater, although no drinking wells are in the neighborhood. Total Cost: $700,000.
Merrie Christmas Park, South Le Jeune Road and Barbarossa Avenue: City workers reopened part of the park in February. Clean-up plans now underway call for digging up a foot to two feet of contaminated soil in the western half of the park where toxic metals are concentrated and using the soil to regrade part of the bowl-shaped park under new design plans. The city also plans to excavate contaminated soil around trees and install rubber mulch and lay recycled rubber mats on playground areas. Any area with contaminated soil will be covered with a liner or two feet of clean fill. Projected Cost: $1.5million.
Curtis Park, 1901 NW 24th Ave.: The city reopened part of the large sports complex, including basketball courts, in June, but has kept areas where contaminated soil is exposed fenced. A clean-up plan was due Sept.17, but has not yet been submitted. Estimated Cost: $4million.
Douglas Park, 2795 SW 37th Ave.: The third park closed after contamination was found at Blanche and Merrie Christmas, the 10-acre park near Coral Gables had high levels of toxic metals from ash in two areas. The city, which will discuss funding clean-up efforts at the park Monday, must submit clean-up plans to the county by Oct.5. The city must also test soil off site to determine the extent of contamination. Projected Cost: $3.5million.
Billy Rolle Domino Park, 3400 Grand Ave.: A neighborhood hangout with shady domino tables, the city is considering installing a liner and new soil as well as a monitoring well. A plan for the clean-up is due Sept.30. Estimated Cost: $250,000.
Southside Park, 100 SW 11th St.: A pocket park near downtown, the city still needs to finish mapping the boundaries of the contamination. A clean-up plan is due Sept.30. Estimated Cost: $1million.
Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd.: Part of the downtown park remains fenced, but addressing contamination in the park may be complicated by its terraced design. A clean-up plan is due Oct.6. No cost estimate available.