Miami-Dade County

Miami closes Melreese after tests on Beckham stadium site reveal unsafe arsenic levels

Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez ordered the closure of Melreese golf course, Miami’s only city-owned golf course, at the end of the day Tuesday, one day after an environmental analysis revealed high levels of arsenic and other pollutants in the soil where David Beckham plans to build a stadium to host his upcoming Major League Soccer team Inter Miami.

“The purpose of this action is to allow outside experts to analyze the results of substantial new environmental testing conducted at the course,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “The golf course will be reopened pending a favorable analysis.” Gonzalez said he did not know how long the analysis would take. The testing was conducted by environmental company EE&G, a consultant hired by Beckham’s partners Jorge and Jose Mas.

While Gonzalez said he closed Melreese in an abundance of caution to do more analysis, one skeptical commissioner suspects environmental concerns are being used as an excuse to drum up support for Miami Freedom Park. The proposed $1 billion complex could replace Melreese with a soccer stadium, mall, office and 58-acre public park.

Miami-Dade’s environmental authority, which recently conducted its own round of soil testing at Melreese, said results from EE&G’s sampling are in line with past data analysis done at the site, which was sullied by ash from an old municipal incinerator that was shut down decades ago.

“This is a large property, and there are a few hot spots that need to be remediated,” said Lee Hefty, director of the Division of Environmental Resources Management, or DERM. Remediation can be done when an area is being redeveloped, he said.

In June, after DERM received a preliminary verbal assessment from EE&G on soil contamination at Melreese, the agency did its own testing. It then asked the city in a July 15 letter to take “immediate action” to remove superficial debris that posed a physical hazard. The second issue was an area with high lead concentrations, which DERM also asked the city to fix. City officials still had not responded to DERM’s requests.

Hefty said there was nothing “earth shattering” in the Beckham group’s report, which tested more than 140 sites at Melreese.

The information in the report isn’t that much different than what we have known about the site,” said Hefty. The county’s environment chief said that while the city hasn’t provided DERM with the actual report, his department analyzed it after the Miami Herald published it on Monday. In a few of the testing sites, the data show levels of arsenic that exceed regulatory limits.

Hefty said that’s to be expected on golf courses because of chemicals that have historically been used to treat and maintain these sites. And even though DERM is concerned by contamination at Melreese and potential health risks for people using the site, the levels of arsenic, lead, barium and other contaminants are overall lower than at other sites analyzed by the agency in the past.

Gonzalez’s decision to temporarily close the site marks another controversial moment in an effort that has long been riddled with unexpected twists and intense scrutiny.

The proposal to transform Melreese made a rushed debut in July 2018. At that time, team owners revealed scant details before public hearings where commissioners were to weigh whether voters should decide if the city should make an exception to its laws and waive public bidding to negotiate a 99-year lease with the soccer team’s owners. The referendum passed with 60 percent approval, setting the stage for talks between the city and team over a lease.

From its inception, the plan attracted critics who see the proposal as a play for valuable city-owned land, a lucrative real estate deal dressed up with public benefits — a new 58-acre park, promises of new jobs and taxes to the city and county, and cash payments to city projects. Skeptics see Melreese’s closure as a part of a ploy to diminish the land’s value during negotiations.

The environmental report, funded by Mas’ group, was done as the city negotiates a no-bid lease with Mas to redevelop Melreese into the mall-stadium complex. Details of the new report were first reported Monday night by the Miami Herald.

Gonzalez told the Herald he is closing Melreese while hiring an independent consultant to further study the results of soil and groundwater sampling done on the site in recent months.

Melreese is a respected golf course, known as the longtime home of the First Tee, a youth golf and empowerment program. The course is also popular for hosting events on the PGA Latinoamerica Tour. According to the course’s website, Melreese is slated to host the Ken Juhn Golf Classic, which benefits adaptive golf, starting Friday. A representative said it is unclear if the event will proceed.

The report by EE&G found high levels of arsenic and lead in the soil, as well as debris littered throughout the top layer of soil at Melreese, just under the golf course’s surface.

The International Links Melreese Country Club in Miami, Florida is closing after a contamination report revealed high levels of arsenic in the soil on Tuesday, August 20, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

Melreese has long been known as a contaminated site that sits atop of layer of toxic ash dumped there from an old municipal incinerator. The 13-acre property next door, Grapeland Water Park, had to be remediated to the tune of about $10 million when it was built more than a decade ago due to similar contamination.

Now, just as Mas and his partners sit in negotiations with the city, the news of contamination is being viewed by skeptics as a bargaining chip Mas could use to push for a more favorable lease. The manager’s decision rankled at least one Miami commissioner who suspects that as negotiations continue, the concerns about Melreese’s contamination are part of a play to devalue the land and therefore lower rent payments to the city.

Commissioner Manolo Reyes, Miami Freedom Park’s most staunch opponent on the commission, said he wants an investigation into whether the test results truly show levels of pollution that merit closing the golf course immediately.

“I don’t know if this is for real, that we have gotten an increase in pollution,” he said. “What I want to know is if it is something that’s been done as a tactic to devalue the land. Then they can claim they will have to pay less.”

The Miami Freedom Park team responded to criticism Tuesday night by stating it simply did what it said it would do.

“All we have done is share the factual outcome of the study we committed to undertake on the Melreese golf course,” the statement read.

Golfers walk off the International Links Melreese Country Club in Miami on Tuesday. MATIAS J. OCNER

One attorney who specializes in environmental law and development told the Herald the closure appears to be premature, given the numbers released this week.

“I would never want to second guess a local government who’s got a responsibility to its citizens, but from what I’ve seen of the data, that looks a bit premature,” said Howard Nelson, a partner at Bilzin Sumberg who is not involved in the Miami Freedom Park project. “What they’re showing for a golf course indicates they’ve got pretty common contaminant levels.”

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Commissioner Ken Russell were briefed on the environmental report Monday. Both later described pollution levels that were unexpectedly high. After the closure was announced Tuesday, Suarez, a vocal supporter of the Miami Freedom Park plan, released a video statement on social media addressing Gonzalez’s decision.

“There’s no indication that anyone’s been exposed to any harmful chemicals,” he said. “But based on the new information that we received on the toxicity levels yesterday, it’s imperative for the safety of our residents to immediately review the findings that we have seen to determine whether, for the health and safety of our residents, the park should remain opened or closed.”

The Florida Department of Health said it couldn’t comment on potential health risks at Melreese because it hasn’t received any information related to the site. DERM’s Hefty said the average level of contamination on the entire property was lower than in places that the state agency considered hazardous in the past.

Herald staff writers Linda Robertson and Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, 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 graduated from the University of Florida.