Toxic soil under golf course is a legacy of Miami’s dirty past. There’s a lot more out there

Since the early 1960s, Melreese Country Club has been used by golfers who enjoy the rolling fairways, five lakes and a cypress wetland that makes the park seem like an oasis in the middle of Miami. Next door at Grapeland Heights Park, kids have hit baseballs for 40 years and can also play at a water park that opened in 2009.

Both were built on top of an old incinerator ash dump full of dangerous toxins. A decade ago, the city spent millions of dollars testing the soil and removing the worst of it to make things clean enough for toddlers to safely splash at Grapeland’s Captain’s Lagoon.

Yet last month the city suddenly shut down Melreese for three days after soil testing done by a consultant revealed higher-than-expected levels of lead, arsenic and other contaminants. City officials said they were surprised and Miami-Dade demanded immediate action at the site eyed by David Beckham and partners for a proposed $1 billion soccer stadium and shopping complex.

One obvious question: Why was anyone surprised by tainted soil? The controversy over Melreese is only the latest reminder of the dirty old days of development in South Florida, when booming cities did little to regulate waste like incinerator ash, garbage and other often toxic material. Miami certainly wasn’t alone. Back then, nasty stuff got dumped everywhere, including many places later turned into public parks.

In Miami-Dade alone, there are about 2,000 sites with soil or groundwater pollution that have been identified, including gas stations and car washes, and dry-cleaning facilities, according to data from the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management.

Most older major dumps sites, like the one under Melreese, have likely been documented but regulators acknowledge they have no idea how many other polluted pockets might be out there. Discoveries tend to be random, usually triggered by redevelopment projects.

A fenced-off area at Melreese Country Club last week, one of four contaminated spots that must be cleaned up. Miami-Dade last month ordered the city to address “areas of concern” where high levels of arsenic and debris were found at Melreese Country Club David Winker David Winker

Miami-Dade, for example, doesn’t do routine sampling but does require testing for soil contamination and groundwater pollution when land is redeveloped to be used by the public. Businesses and home buyers also sometimes unearth unknown problems. The county encourages investors to research its contaminated sites map for information on specific properties. The property appraiser’s website also has an Environmental Considerations link that may list potential problems.

I can’t sample every single property in Miami-Dade, it’s just not feasible,” said Wilbur Mayorga, head of DERM’s Environmental Monitoring and Restoration Division.

Instead, regulators focus on cleaning up and monitoring known sites to limit the potential spread of contamination. Once bad stuff is found, regulators can step in and test a one-mile radius around the area. After cleanup work is complete, the county continues to regularly test the sites, Mayorga said.

Sometimes they go further, shutting down sites and ordering cleanups as Miami-Dade did with the city of Miami’s parks in 2013 when hazardous levels of soil contaminants were found in two Coconut Grove parks. DERM continues to monitor those sites because strong storms can sometimes produce erosion that opens up new problem areas.

But the uncertainty of what is under Melreese and how much it might cost to clean it up underlines the challenge of assessing potential health hazards from legacy pollution and coming up with plans to protect the public. Some social justice and environmental activists say the problem, particularly in poor or heavily developed urban areas, is often put on the back burner or even kept hidden from the public.

“Judging by anecdotal evidence, our impression is that no one is driving the car in the city and the county when it comes to dealing with contamination issues,” said Anthony Alfieri, a University of Miami law professor whose Environmental Justice Project unearthed a massive contamination case linked to an old incinerator, triggering the large-scale parks cleanup effort six years ago.

The City of Miami discovered contamination in 2011 at the site of Old Smokey, a trash incinerator that operated for more than 40 years until it was shut down in 1970. Though the soil around the facility, now a training center for firefighters on Jefferson Street, had unsafe levels of lead, arsenic, barium and other pollutants, city officials did not alert residents of the West Grove area. A report on the findings remained under wraps until a city employee revealed its existence in 2013 to one of Alfieri’s graduate students at the time.

Under growing scrutiny from the university, residents and county regulators, the city began sampling in 2013. When contaminants were discovered at nearby Blanche Park and then Merrie Christmas Park, the county ordered test to all 112 city parks, setting off the discovery of seven other contaminated sites and an $11 million cleanup.

This photocopy of a photograph shows Old Smokey, an incinerator that was in Coconut Grove’s West Grove community for decades. The incinerator, at 3425 Jefferson St., was demolished; in its place is the City of Miami Fire Rescue Training Center. For The Miami Herald

Toxic trouble at the Melreese site was also well-known. The city got an expensive lesson in the problem in 2005, when buried ash with dangerous levels of arsenic, lead and other contaminants were found at Grapeland Heights Park, the popular park with ball fields adjacent to Melreese. Until tests were done ahead of a $19 million redevelopment project to upgrade fields and add a water park and a community center, officials had no idea the soil was so polluted — though some old-timers insist it was common knowledge the area once served as an ash dump.

Other dumps were also converted into public spaces in the past.

Gwen Cherry Park, a former quarry and dump site known as Wryal’s Pit, became a park in 1969 but soil testing was only done 30 years later, which revealed elevated levels of arsenic in the lake sediment. Olinda Park, which the city of Miami used as an incinerator ash deposit, was shut in 2011 after lead, arsenic and other heavy metals were found. It re-opened after it was excavated, sealed with a clay liner and re-capped with clean fill.

Other examples include Fern Isle Park, next to State Road 836, where the city illegally dumped construction debris; Hammocks Community Park in West Kendall, where remediation of arsenic-laced soil took place in 2014; and the former Bicentennial Park, the site of the old Port of Miami downtown, which was transformed into Museum Park, home to the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science.

Redeveloping a site is an opportunity for deeper testing and remediation efforts, DERM’s Mayorga said. Contaminated soil can either be removed or capped with clean fill, sometimes reinforced by a clay lining if necessary. But even those remediation solutions can erode over time.

Assessing the sites is a huge challenge. There is no easy formula to determine whether contaminated soil is a serious health hazard and a lot of it depends on exposure levels and who is being exposed.

Because incinerators have a long history in the US, figuring out what to do with land that was contaminated by them isn’t simple. The question usually revolves around land use: developing a soccer stadium on top of an old ash dump might be OK, but building a daycare center isn’t. Several factors come into play when deciding how to remediate contaminated soil, from how the space will be used to the length and frequency of exposure and the age of people visiting the space.

Children are considered particularly at risk to exposure to arsenic, lead, other heavy metals and dioxins, which at high levels are known to cause cancer, nerve and developmental problems.

The Environment Protection Agency tracks hazardous waste sites across the country. As of August 2019, there were 54 such sites on the National Priorities List in Florida. The list includes the most serious, uncontrolled or abandoned waste sites identified for possible long-term remediation.

But there must be hundreds more, as the EPA isn’t always actively looking for new sites, said Mike Ewall, the founder of Energy Justice Network, a non-profit fighting energy facilities such as coal plants and waste sites as incinerators and landfills. And even when a site is found, getting the county or city to actually do the cleanup is another battle, he said.

“Cities, local governments just want to develop, they are not interested in strict standards,” so it’s usually up to state and federal authorities to enforce cleanup rules, he said. Energy Justice is pressuring states to shut down all 72 incinerators that still burn trash in the US.

In the meantime at Melreese, golfers said they trust remediation has been successful. Much of the course has been capped with top soil and turf and the recent finds closer to the surface were initially simply fenced off so the golfers could continue to play through.

Mike Simmons has been playing golf at the club for 25 years and also teaches kids who take part in the First Tee, a junior golf program that offers affordable classes and teaches leadership skills to more than 2,000 kids. Simmons said he isn’t concerned by a recent environmental report showing high levels of arsenic and lead, as well as debris littered just under the golf course’s surface.

“This area has been cleaned up so many times,” he said, “I imagine there is some contamination but levels are probably very low.”

melreese initial rendering.jpg
The soccer stadium and commercial complex proposed by David Beckham to house his Major League Soccer team Inter Miami would be built at the site where Melreese Golf Course is located