Miami-Dade County

Miami may change course on clean-up of toxic park

Crews in backhoes work Monday around a mound of unearthed toxic soil covered by a white tarp in Merrie Christmas Park. City officials say they may work out a deal with Coral Gables to remove the contaminated soil rather than redistribute it in the park.
Crews in backhoes work Monday around a mound of unearthed toxic soil covered by a white tarp in Merrie Christmas Park. City officials say they may work out a deal with Coral Gables to remove the contaminated soil rather than redistribute it in the park. Miami Herald

The city of Miami may change its plans to clean contaminated Merrie Christmas Park following weeks of push-back from surrounding residents.

Contractors were told Monday to limit their efforts in the bowl-shaped, 5.5-acre park to mostly work around several towering trees. Plans to spread a tall mound of unearthed toxic soil to other parts of the park were paused. And the park, located off South Le Jeune Road, will no longer be designated a brownfield site, a controversial declaration that would limit the Miami’s legal liabilities but also potentially defray one-third of the current $1.5 million remediation cost.

The sudden changes, explained Monday by Deputy City Manager Alice Bravo, come amid opposition to the city’s remediation plans from residents in the homes surrounding the sloping lawn along the edge of the boundary of South Coconut Grove and Coral Gables.

The ongoing project to remove contaminants linked to ash dumped decades ago from a long-closed incinerator is approved by the county. But neighbors are irked that instead of removing unearthed toxic soil at an estimated cost of $300,000 the city is redistributing the dirt to other, lower areas of the park.

On Sunday, dozens of people gathered in the clean, eastern half of the park to protest. In response, Bravo, who attended, said the city changed course on some aspects of its remediation plan, and began to consider potential alternatives for others.

“We went to listen,” she said.

The city, for instance, reached out to Coral Gables Commissioner Vince Lago to broach the topic of the neighboring city perhaps paying for the cost of removing the mound of toxic soil at the park, which is also used by Gables residents. Lago said he’s added a discussion item for the Gables’ Tuesday meeting.

“I’m not ruling anything out,” said Lago. “At the end of the day we’re separated by city boundaries but we’re all residents of this community.”

Miami’s actions Monday were greeted warmly by Ken Russell, a South Grove resident who lives across from the park on Barbarossa Avenue and has ripped the city for not vetting its cleanup plans first with the neighborhood. Russell said he’s happy the city is coming around, but still wonders if Miami can and should pay to remove all the toxic soil.

“We’re part of the way there,” he said from his home following a meeting with Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff.

One of the concerns voiced by Russell and other residents: The city’s current plans leave toxic soil in place beneath two feet of clean material — likely also leaving in place a property appraiser’s designation that homes within a quarter mile of the park are located next to a contaminated site.

Sarnoff has said the city can’t pay to remove contaminated soil from Merrie Christmas Park, because then it would have to incur the cost of doing the same at five other contaminated parks. But he said special circumstances — such as a joint effort with Coral Gables — would remove that burden.

In the meantime, Sarnoff said the city is reaching out to the county and the property appraiser’s office to see if there can be some flexibility in terms of tagging the surrounding homes. Lago said he’d do the same.

“This is not about health. This is not about kids. It’s really about property values,” said Sarnoff.

Bravo, the deputy city manager, said the sudden change in course could be taken as a sign that plans are changing. But she said it’s also an attempt to ease concerns ahead of a public meeting Thursday at City Hall called to better lay out what the city is doing at Merrie Christmas Park, dispel what she said are false rumors, and explain why the clean-up process is safe.

“I do want to have the ability to explain what we’re doing and why,” she said.

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