Miami-Dade County

Report on Beckham stadium site shows soil contaminated by unsafe levels of arsenic

Beckham and Mas reach out to voters on Election Day

David Beckham and partner Jorge Mas talked to voters on November 6, 2018, and asked them to vote yes on the ballot question that would allow them to build a stadium complex in Melreese.
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David Beckham and partner Jorge Mas talked to voters on November 6, 2018, and asked them to vote yes on the ballot question that would allow them to build a stadium complex in Melreese.

Update: Tuesday afternoon, Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez announced he was closing Melreese until further notice for additional analysis of environmental test results. Read more here.

The proposed site for a Major League Soccer stadium and mall in Miami is far more toxic than previously expected, with arsenic contamination levels reaching more than twice the legal limit and surface-level soil samples containing debris that poses a “physical hazard.”

A new environmental analysis has shed more light on the large extent of the environmental problems in the dirt at Melreese golf course, Miami’s only city-owned golf course and the potential site for a sprawling $1 billion commercial and stadium complex that would serve as the venue for home games played by David Beckham’s MLS team, Inter Miami.

A significant factor that could alter Inter Miami’s future on the 131-acre site: the severity of the pollution underneath the grass. A report by a consultant paints an ugly picture of what lies beneath the golf course — and in some spots, the contamination is right near the surface, as shallow as a half-foot deep. Nearly the entire site is sullied by ash from an old municipal incinerator that was shut down decades ago.

A consultant hired by the team, environmental firm EE&G, recently completed soil testing that found contamination levels at twice the allowable limit for arsenic. Barium and lead levels also exceeded legal limits. The crud, including debris at shallow depths, kept showing up over the course of more than 140 soil samples taken in recent months.

“The debris included fragments of tile, metal and glass, mixed with fine-grain sands, which often exhibited a rusty color,” reads a section from a 193-page portion of the consultant’s report. “Intermittent wood fragments were encountered along with concrete and other non-native materials, but not evidence of municipal garbage.”

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a vocal supporter of the Melreese redevelopment plan since the proposal debuted a year ago, was briefed on the report Monday morning.

“This obviously causes great concerns,” he said. “We’re glad this event has caused us to test the site.”

Suarez shared a significant finding from the consultant — that the golf course has levels of arsenic that exceed twice the regulatory limits.

“Basically, the site has significantly more contamination than what is commercially reasonable,” Suarez said, adding that the city has chosen another consulting firm, AECOM, to conduct its own analysis of the findings. The firm will be paid by Inter Miami.

The Miami Herald received a copy of the report late Monday. Earlier Monday evening, the Herald’s request for the report was rebuffed because Inter Miami’s team had brought the documents to City Hall for briefings that day, but had not left copies behind.

That choice echoed the secretive nature that marked Inter Miami’s first dealings with the city in summer 2018, when commissioners were shown renderings and given details about the Miami Freedom Park proposal but were never provided with copies that could be requested as public records.

After multiple Herald requests, the full set of documents was sent to the whole City Commission and a reporter, and the report’s findings were described to a reporter by multiple elected officials and an attorney representing Inter Miami.

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This week, the team behind Miami Freedom Park released this new artist rendering of the proposed redevelopment of Melreese golf course. Miami Freedom Park

A separate series of tests by the county Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) yielded similarly grimy results, showing high concentrations of lead in the soil at the site. DERM also tested for other substances including barium, arsenic and dioxin, but the Herald could not determine by press time if the concentrations of these contaminants exceeded permissible levels. The property once was a dumping site for incinerator ash.

It also wasn’t immediately clear whether the cost of fixing the problem would make the plans for a stadium and commercial complex unfeasible. Inter Miami officials have in the past estimated the cleanup would cost in the range of $35 million, a number repeatedly offered by the team’s local managing partner, MasTec chairman Jorge Mas. Monday night, Suarez said team officials have more recently estimated the cost could reach $50 million. The true number and its feasibility won’t be known until all parties consult with DERM to develop a cleanup plan.

More than a decade ago, it cost $10 million to clean up more than 13 acres of polluted earth to build the Grapeland Water Park, a public facility next door that was completed in 2008. Because of the tests done on the Grapeland site, it was generally assumed that contamination would be found next door at Melreese. Smaller-scale DERM testing done before the Miami Freedom Park plan suggested arsenic might be a problem.

The county tests also identified problems just below Melreese’s fairway. In a July 15 letter to top Miami administrators, a DERM official wrote that there was surface-level “debris in the upper soil interval that require immediate attention as they pose a physical hazard.”

Wilbur Mayorga, chief of Miami-Dade’s pollution division, told City Manager Emilio Gonzalez the city needed to quickly — within 30 days — address multiple issues by removing and replacing soil or using other county-sanctioned means. Mayorga also said the city needed to provide the county a report detailing its actions.

“Failure to adhere to the items and timeframe stipulated above may result in enforcement action for this site,” Mayorga wrote.

A public database containing DERM’s correspondence does not have a response from the city. On Monday evening, officials from DERM did not respond to requests for comment.

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Tests have found unsafe levels of arsenic and other contaminants in the soil of Melreese golf course, where David Beckham and his partners want to build the MLS soccer stadium. Pedro Portal

DERM has also requested the results from tests done by Inter Miami’s consultant. Findings from the report were presented on Monday to Suarez, Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort, who represents the district that includes Melreese, and Commissioner Ken Russell, the chairman of Miami’s commission. The meetings included a group of representatives from Inter Miami, the mayor’s office, and city administrators.

After their briefings, Russell and Frank Castaneda, Gort’s chief of staff, told the Herald the tests confirmed that Melreese has widespread contamination caused by the ash, and the pollution is worse than once believed.

“This is the largest contaminated park in the city’s portfolio,” Russell said. “This is a concern.”

The environmental questions come at a time when the city is negotiating terms of a 99-year lease that would allow Mas to build a stadium-commercial complex that would include a hotel, 25,000-seat stadium, office park, shopping center, and soccer fields on the roof of a parking structure. Miami Freedom Park would also include a 58-acre public park.

The idea has sparked controversy since its inception, when Mas and his partners kept details secret until revealing a larger plan a widely watched public hearing last July, a commission meeting that Beckham attended and attracted much media. Commissioners, with Russell as a key swing vote, eventually voted to hold a referendum and ask Miami voters if the city should be allowed to negotiate a no-bid deal with Inter Miami.

Now, commissioners are expecting to see a lease on Sept. 12, a self-imposed deadline that is not actually binding. The terms of the lease need to be approved by four of five city commissioners. Attorneys from Inter Miami and the city are still in negotiations on a proposal to take to the commission.

After Monday’s presentation, Russell said the Inter Miami team continued to maintain it would not seek city dollars to pay for Melreese’s cleanup. The commissioner reiterated his political origin story — a Coconut Grove resident who turned activist due to the contamination of his neighborhood public space, Merrie Christmas Park.

“I learned about contaminated parks from the fight in front of my home and this is not different,” he said, adding that, “From the initial briefing I received today, however, we know what we are dealing with, and it must be remediated to a level that is safe for kids to play.”

Read EE&G’s environmental report below, followed by DERM’s letters to the city and Inter Miami.

Herald staff writer Adriana Brasileiro contributed to this report.
Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, ranging from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He attended the University of Florida.