Workers drill down for tainted soil samples in Coconut Grove park

Workers lifted up benches and tried not to disturb artificial turf Thursday as they dug down into as much as two feet of soil at a popular playground and dog park in Coconut Grove that may have been contaminated by toxic ash.

The city expanded its testing of the soil at Blanche Park, 3045 Shipping Ave., this week after discovering dangerous levels of dioxins and heavy metals earlier this month.

City officials originally thought the land, acquired by the city in 1943, had been used as a dump, said assistant city manager Alice Bravo. Heavy metals, as well as ground glass, in dirt tested on Aug. 29 and again on Sept. 3 fit the profile of soil where ash was once dumped. But aerial photographs from 1940, 1945 and 1960 show empty land, she said Thursday.

“We don’t see anything in the park other than grass, from the ‘40s through the ‘60s, so we’re still trying to figure out what it was,” she said. “I’m having everyone I can try to find some documentation.”

City commissioner Marc Sarnoff ordered the park tested, along with Peacock and Esther Mae Armbrister parks, and area schools, after the city discovered contaminated soil at the site of an old municipal incinerator at 3425 Jefferson St. in the West Grove. Carver and Tucker elementary schools, Carver Middle School and Coral Gables High School are among the schools that have been tested.

Efforts to clean up that site have been dragging on for more than two years and only came to light this year after a University of Miami graduate student discovered the city’s study and shared it with residents who live near the site, which is now the city’s fire training facility.

Residents angered by the city’s delays complained to the county, as well as state and federal environmental officials, prompting the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management to order the city to widen testing to a one-mile radius from the center. So far, at least 63 samples have been collected, in addition to the more than 24 being taken at Blanche.

DERM, along with county and state health officials, are now examining those samples and plan to present a fuller picture of what they found at the park as well as the entire neighborhood at a 6 p.m. meeting Monday at Elizabeth Virrick Park, 3255 Plaza St., Coconut Grove.

On Thursday, workers with a Davie company, JAEE Environmental, and SCS ES Consultants, spread white plastic tarps where they emptied soil pulled from around the park into glass jars. The soil was collected at both six-inch and 24-inch intervals by a remote-controlled Geoprobe, a drill on treads that can bore into soil.

JAEE, which specializes in soil and groundwater sampling, worked on studies done in Palm Beach County about three years ago after health officials began noticing what appeared to be a cancer cluster in The Acreage. No source has ever been confirmed there.

To avoid damaging the artificial turf, which for the time being serves as a protective seal, workers drilled under benches and around planted beds.

Workers are performing a “delineation,” which maps out the boundaries of the possible contamination and determines whether it comes from the park, or somewhere else, explained the city’s Brownfields Coordinator, Harry James. He hopes to collect all the samples from inside the park as well as the perimeter by tomorrow, but may have to return Monday.

“We’re just trying to be as productive as we can and see what we can do prior to the weekend,” he said.

Each day, the park will reopen after workers leave, which makes neighbor Susie Mayer, 20, happy.

“It’s her favorite place,” she said of Lucy, her Australian cattle dog mix as they walked away from the park Thursday. Mayer, a UM student, moved to the neighborhood from Pennsylvania in May, but had heard little about the investigation at the park.

“I’m a little concerned because I’ve been coming here almost every day,” she said. “I would like to believe that if they had major concerns, they would have closed it.”