Contaminated soil found in Blanche Park

Miami city workers have trucked away contaminated dirt and paved the parking lot at a popular park for children and dogs in Coconut Grove after tests showed the soil contained lead, arsenic and other toxic substances.

The soil at Blanche Park, 3045 Shipping Ave. — tested as part of a wider study into contamination from an old Miami incinerator — exceeded levels allowed by the county, according to a Sept. 4 letter sent to the city by the county’s Department of Environmental Resources.

In a meeting hastily called by City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff at the park Monday night, between 75 and 100 neighbors, many with dogs, questioned Sarnoff as well as the county’s environmental chief, Wilbur Mayorga.

“Is it safe for our kids to play here while it’s being remediated?” asked Justin Leto, a lawyer whose two young children play at the park. “They should close the entire park pending further investigation.”

Elizabeth Ramirez led officials to a spot where just six months ago, she said, kids played with sand in a gap in the artificial turf that covers most of the park. Sometimes, she said, they ate it.

“Kids used to literally sit here and dig and it was their dinner,” she said.

Paving the parking lot acts as a cap and ensures it is safe, Mayorga explained. The artificial turf within the park provides the same type of seal.

“That should not be looked at as a small and incomplete step,” he said. “It’s just our initial” step.

Sarnoff, who lives across the street, asked the city to test the soil in August after a University of Miami graduate student discovered a two-year-old city study that uncovered soil contamination at a nearby firefighter training facility. The facility, which opened in 1983, had been built on land once occupied by the incinerator, named Old Smokey.

“I asked them to test places right away where we knew kids were. That was my primary concern,” he said. “Then I said where are the control studies? And they said they weren’t doing any. I’m not an expert, but it just seemed obvious.”

The tests were part of eight targeted borings done by the city after the county ordered it to test 15 other random sites in light of the contaminated soil found at the firefighters’ training site, the former home of the incinerator at 3425 Jefferson St. The city also targeted Peacock Park, where no contamination was found, as well as Esther Mae Armbrister Park and area schools, including F.S. Tucker and Carver elementary schools, Carver Middle and Coral Gables Senior High. Those samples are still being studied.

In addition, the county collected 40 samples from the neighborhood.

All the samples will be evaluated to give a fuller picture of what exists in the soil. Some have shown relatively minor levels of contaminants.

But samples taken at Blanche were so high that Mayorga ordered its parking lot roped off. Paving the lot will temporarily seal the soil so it can remain open until studies are complete, he explained.

Records indicate the site, which had been used to quarry limestone, was purchased by the city in 1943 to dump trash, said Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo. In 1962, it was turned into a park, she said.

In fact, the soil borings contain glass, indicating ash was dumped at the site, Mayorga said. That also means the contamination likely did not come from ash spewing from the incinerator.

The latest finding only complicates what has become a prolonged investigation burdened with delays.

The city shut down the incinerator in 1970 after the city of Coral Gables and two dozen residents successfully sued over the noxious smoke that billowed from the old stack, at times violating pollution controls. Before the city opened the fire training facility, no testing for contamination was done, according to a city study.

In 2011, however, the city tested the land where it wanted to expand the training center and found elevated levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, barium and lead.

The county’s DERM has been asking the city to come up with a plan for cleaning up that contamination for more than two years. In August, after residents in the West Grove complained when UM shared its findings with them, the county ordered the city to widen its testing to a one-mile radius.

On Friday, Bravo asked for yet another extension to the latest deadline, which was at 5 p.m. Monday.

Now with the findings at Blanche Park, the investigation will widen yet again. In addition to samples collected Friday, DERM plans to collect even more samples from the park, Mayorga said. And there will be a meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Elizabeth Virrick Park, 3255 Plaza St., for residents to discuss the issue.

“We don’t even know the extent of the contamination,” he said. “We need to understand the vertical profile.”

Related stories from Miami Herald