Miami-Dade County

Miami finds millions to clean, reopen contaminated sites

Environmental consultants collect soil samples at Blanche Park in Coconut Grove on Sept. 12, 2013.
Environmental consultants collect soil samples at Blanche Park in Coconut Grove on Sept. 12, 2013. MIAMI HERALD FILE

One year after health concerns related to the toxic plume of an old West Grove incinerator led to an environmental investigation of more than 100 parks, Miami officials have set aside the millions of dollars to clean tainted public land.

Commissioners, voting about 1 a.m. Tuesday during a marathon meeting, authorized administrators to seek a $10 million special bond issue to fund decontamination of a half-dozen parks, the “Old Smokey” incinerator site, and other parcels.

City Manager Daniel Alfonso said the money covers all of the public sites that Miami-Dade County’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources has demanded the city address — though additional problems loom on privately owned land.

“My understanding is this is what we know of right now,” Alfonso said. “We decided to borrow the money because it’s better than doing this piecemeal thing.”

Miami has been wrangling with contaminated land since last September, when a University of Miami law student discovered that the county had been pushing the city for more than two years to address contamination issues linked to the old incinerator. The city and county began testing nearby sites, and after finding toxic soil in two parks, the county ordered the city to test all 112 of its green spaces.

Ultimately, the city closed all or parts of seven parks where elevated levels of heavy metals like arsenic and lead were discovered in the soil, and continued to test in and around the old incinerator site. Earlier this month, administrators explained that correcting all of the remaining problems would cost about $10 million — money the city didn’t have. Until now.

Included on the clean-up list:

▪ Billie Rolle Domino Park, Curtis Park, Douglas Park and Southside Park, all of which tested positive for elevated levels of contaminants. The city has already funded clean-ups at Blanche and Merrie Christmas parks.

▪ Projects unrelated to the incinerator, including Grapeland Park and Melreese golf course, a Watson Island property and former gas stations.

▪ The City of Miami Fire Rescue Training Center, site of the defunct Jefferson Street incinerator that spewed ash over the West Grove.

Commissioners still have to approve the issuance of the bonds when administrators nail down the terms. But officials said merely voting to seek the funds frees up the money now to move forward with clean-up plans.

“This gives us financial flexibility to do this, certainly with the backstop of the bond,” said City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes several of the contaminated parks, including one across from his house that reopened recently.

But this might not resolve all of Miami’s contamination problems.

In June, a city consultant documented that contaminants linked to Old Smokey extended beyond the firefighter facility and into the nearby public right-of-way. Contamination also had been found on surrounding residential properties.

In response to the report, Wilbur Mayorga, chief of the county’s division of environmental monitoring and restoration, directed the city to search to determine the extent of the contamination. On Sept. 18, he wrote a second memo saying the city had missed its deadlines.

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

Deputy City Manager Alice Bravo said Tuesday that the city continues to try and reach agreements with private property owners to test for contamination, but had not yet come to terms with anyone. She said it was not for lack of trying. Critics are dubious.

“They haven’t done it, and we don’t think they’re going to,” Zach Lipshultz, the UM student whose discovery of a report documenting the Old Smokey contamination brought the problem to the public’s attention, told the Miami Herald last week.

Lipshultz is now a fellow of the university’s Environmental Justice Project, which has questioned whether findings of contamination outside the incinerator facility, at sites that weren’t dumping grounds, is proof that the contamination has gone airborne.

Bravo disagreed: “I don’t think that’s an appropriate conclusion.”

In the meantime, the city continues to work toward cleaning up its parks and properties. In voting for the $10 million bond issue, commissioners urged administrators to move swiftly to clean Douglas Park, which they promised long ago would reopen by November.

That time line is blown. But now the city at least has money in hand to fund the restoration.

Miami Herald staff writer Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.

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