When Jimmy Ingram attended what was then a segregated Carver High School in 1959, smoke and ash would billow from a Miami city incinerator a block away, sometimes drifting through the open classroom windows.
“Sometimes the trees would catch fire and we’d have to put them out because the fire department wouldn’t come,” he said.
Some days, he said, the football field on the western edge of Coconut Grove sat under a blanket of ash spewed from Old Smoky, the stack that coughed up plumes routinely exceeding pollution control measures. Other days, ash would ignite rooftops.
“This stuff was just all over. Everywhere. All over the Grove,” he said. “We didn’t know anything about the contamination.”
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Until this year. Decades after the incinerator was shut down, the ghost of its toxic plume has reappeared in a growing dispute between residents of the West Grove and city officials, who discovered the contamination more than two years ago but have yet to clean it up, or even lay out a plan for how they will deal with it.
The contamination came to light earlier this year when a University of Miami graduate student stumbled upon it while researching the construction of a nearby trolley garage that residents bitterly oppose. The information has rubbed raw the tense relations between the city and the neighborhood.
“The city of Miami has never taken responsibility and apologized to this community,” said Anthony Alfieri, a UM law professor whose Environmental Justice Project has led the investigation into the matter. “They burdened a Jim Crow community with an incinerator for 45 years without any benefits and then have apparently, for 43 years, either suppressed information or neglected their public health duties to investigate and report it.”
The city first discovered contaminated soil in 2011 while preparing to expand a firefighter training facility that has been on the old incinerator site since 1983. The 4.4-acre property at 3425 Jefferson St. sits amid the houses of the historic black neighborhood, sandwiched between Armbrister Park, where neighborhood kids play Pop Warner football, and the Barnyard, a community center for elementary and middle school students.
Within months, the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) ordered the city to find out exactly what was polluting the soil, what risk it posed to residents and come up with a plan for dealing with it.
It gave the city 60 days to comply.
The city missed the deadline. It missed another deadline in August 2011, saying it lacked the money to pay for a study.
This May, nearly two years later, the city finally submitted a report that confirmed elevated levels of arsenic along with other toxic heavy metals including barium and lead, all above what the state allows in residential areas. The study also confirmed atmospheric pollutants called PAHs above commercial limits. Among the pollutants was benzo(a)pyrene, which is considered highly carcinogenic.
Now, with mounting pressure from residents and the legal team at UM, the county has intensified its scrutiny. Miami-Dade environmental officials have ordered the city to expand its testing to a one-mile radius, with test sites randomly selected by a computer to deliver the most statistically accurate results, said Wilbur Mayorga, chief of Miami-Dade’s Environmental Monitoring & Restoration Division. Borings could come from nearby schools, like Carver and F.S. Tucker elementary schools, which sit within the area, as well as front yards and Armbrister Park.
“What that allows is the removal of any potential bias from the selection, either from the city officials or the citizens,” Mayorga explained. “It relies on the randomness of the selection procedure.”
Toxicologists and epidemiologists with the state and county health departments are also reviewing tests for any risks to residents, he said.
Mayorga set a Monday deadline for results. But last week, assistant city manager Alice Bravo said the city would probably miss the deadline yet again and ask for another extension because it has been unable to get permission to test on all the private property.
“They know we’re working aggressively on this,” she said, explaining that delays over the years were caused by indecision about whether to move forward with the firefighters’ training center expansion.
“If you’re on the fence on whether you’re going to do the project, you want to do the remediation concurrently with the project,” she said. “What I can tell you is we’re fully aware of the issue and its history and we’re working hand in hand with DERM to address whatever is required.”
Robert Suarez, president of the city firefighters union, said that firefighters are concerned but have been assured the contamination is not an imminent danger.
“I’ve heard that though technically what they found is not the end of the world, the city’s lack of response is the bigger issue,” he said. “And if they’re not responding, how can we trust them that they’re remedying the situation.”
But residents have run out of patience.
“They still got the kids practicing on Carver field. They still got the kids at the Barnyard. They still got the kids at Carver Elementary and Carver Middle School,” said Pastor Jeffrey Hamilton, chairman of the Coconut Grove Ministerial Alliance, a partnership among the neighborhood’s historic black churches. “It may not be anything other than that particular site. But we need to find out.”
Residents are particularly incensed that they were never warned about the contamination. They first learned about the 2011 tests after UM law fellow Zach Lipshultz came across the city reports earlier this year while researching the Coral Gables trolley garage case.
“It’s been three and a half years,” Hamilton said. “The question the pastors ask is, what if we had not stumbled upon this?”
Ash and health problems
The history of Old Smoky is not unlike other incinerators of its generation. Once considered the most effective way of ridding cities and towns of their garbage, incinerators popped up everywhere.
The first was built in 1885 on Governor’s Island in New York, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By the mid-1900s, hundreds operated across the country.
Little was known about their health risks, the EPA said, but in 1970, as the environmental movement peaked, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, establishing tough new restrictions and signaling the demise of many incinerators.
“Historically, they were just burning it. There were no emission controls,” said Monica Wilson, U.S. program director for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “Before the regulations that said you had to capture the ash and truck it to a fill, it was probably piled up on site and that’s a real problem.”
Ash, she said, has been tied to lead contamination, a difficult to trace but potentially profoundly damaging toxin.
“You’ve got lead linked to increasing crime and (developmental delays) and all these things are tied together, but it’s not really on the surface.” she said. “It’s more subtle.”
Despite those dangers, the EPA has no program for monitoring old sites, said Chris Russell, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator for Florida. The agency, he said, relies on local officials to detect and track problems and only steps in when requested.
“We get involved when they’ve exhausted their resources,” he explained. “Three years. That’s a long time. It sounds like it. But in reality, I would say that’s not uncommon.”
History of complaints
Residents who lived near Old Smoky had long complained about its noxious smoke and ash. According to a 1970 Miami Herald editorial, smoke from the incinerator forced pilots to make instrument landings in 1957.
The stack also violated the county’s pollution ordinance as early as 1964 by generating three to four times what was allowed.
The city of Coral Gables, which borders the area on the south and west, first sued to shut it down in 1962 and again in 1967, finally succeeding in 1970. In rejecting Miami’s effort to keep the incinerator operating, the Third District Court of Appeal noted that evidence from residents “shows that ashes and other particulate matter fell upon their persons and property, and some expressed having experienced physical discomfort therefrom.”
Residents, the judges concluded, “graphically demonstrated the degree of severity with which this incinerator was violating their property rights or their persons.”
The court ordered the city to clean up the incinerator. Instead, the city shut it down.
In 1983, it opened the newly constructed firefighters’ training facility. When the facility needed to expand to maintain its state certification to train firefighters, the city ordered the soil testing in 2010, records show. In the report Lipshultz discovered, Cherokee Enterprises Inc. told the city it could find no evidence that any testing for contamination, or clean up, was ever performed, despite an incinerator having operated on the site since the 1930s.
Around the country and in South Florida, contamination has routinely been found near incinerators. In 1989, the EPA designated Fort Lauderdale’s old municipal landfill and incinerator in the northwest corner of the city, which opened in 1954, a Superfund site. The designation triggered a $20 million clean-up.
In 2011, the EPA ordered another clean-up after finding lead contamination at Olinda Park on Northwest 51st Street, where the city of Miami had dumped incinerator ash more than a half century ago, until it gave the land back to the county in 1944. The county turned it into a neighborhood park.
Tracking residents’ health
While significant health and environmental risks from old incinerator sites remain a matter of debate, studying Grove residents would provide a unique chance to look at a sizable and tight-knit population with deep roots, said Dr. Steven Lipshultz, a pediatric cardiologist, UM professor and director of the Batchelor Children’s Research Institute at UM medical school.
Lipshultz, Zach Lipshultz’s father, cared for children in the landmark Massachusetts case that became the book A Civil Action, which was made into a film starring Robert Duvall. Lipshultz was on staff at Children’s Hospital in Boston before joining the faculty at Harvard Medical School and Boston University. He believes a health registry should be started to track illnesses.
“If one is going to tell a story like this, there is also an obligation to say, well, what really are the consequences?” he said. “When you’re talking about low levels of exposure, it’s not easy to see these. So we really need to get professionals to look at these neighborhoods so you can get the answer to, is this just a bunch of nonsense and we’re being alarmist? Or do we really need to follow it?”