Coconut Grove

Donor gives $175K to remove toxic soil from Miami park

Crews work at Merrie Christmas Park in Mid October. An anonymous donor has contributed $175,000 to pay for the city of Miami to remove the mound of tainted soil covered beneath white plastic.
Crews work at Merrie Christmas Park in Mid October. An anonymous donor has contributed $175,000 to pay for the city of Miami to remove the mound of tainted soil covered beneath white plastic. Miami Herald

An anonymous donor has pledged $175,000 to help the city of Miami remove a large mound of unearthed, toxic soil sitting in the middle of a contaminated Coconut Grove park.

Letters from the city announcing the donation were delivered this week to residents living near Merrie Christmas Park, located on South Le Jeune Road and Barbarossa Avenue on the border between South Coconut Grove and Coral Gables. The park has been closed for more than a year due to unsafe levels of heavy metals like barium and arsenic in the soil.

The city is pursuing a county-approved $1.5 million plan to remediate the sloping, bowl-shaped lawn by covering contaminated soil with two feet of clean fill. But aspects of the project proved controversial with neighbors, who have been especially opposed to a proposal to redistribute tainted soil from higher elevations of the park to lower elevations in order to re-grade the park.

A group calling itself Friends of Merrie Christmas Park demanded the city remove the unearthed tainted soil altogether. For weeks, Commissioner Marc Sarnoff and Deputy City Manager Alice Bravo told residents the city could not afford the dumping fees at Merrie Christmas and the five other contaminated city parks, arguing that what is done for one should be done for all.

But this month, during a contentious public gathering at City Hall, Sarnoff and Coral Gables Commissioner Vince Lago told residents they’d help raise private donations to foot the bill if neighbors raised $50,000 themselves. Sarnoff, though, dropped that request. And on Wednesday, the city sent out a letter from Capital Improvements Director Mark Spanioli announcing that the money had been raised, and the mound would be removed.

“We should probably have something in writing the next few days,” said a grateful Lago, who like Sarnoff declined to name the donor.

Sarnoff said the $175,000 donation would be made directly to the city of Miami, in the form of a grant. He said the remediation project could be completed by Christmas.

The news pleased some frustrated residents, who nevertheless remain skeptical about whether the city is pursuing an appropriate plan for the park, which sits in a residential neighborhood. Michelle Niemeyer, an attorney and former commission candidate representing three neighborhood families, said there are reasonable alternatives to the city’s plan that could still be considered.

“My client’s goal is to have a cleanup that’s adequate to protect the safety of their families and their property values, and the steps that the city is taking are a great move in the right direction,” said Niemeyer. “We’re hopeful we’ll be able to fully resolve the situation without a lawsuit.”

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