Potential contamination at Homestead detention center means it can’t be safe to house children | Opinion

Migrant children walk outside at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in 2018.
Migrant children walk outside at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in 2018. AP

On Aug. 14, the Miami Herald reported that the Homestead detention center for immigrant children would be reopened in October. There are still employees there, although the last children were removed in early August.

There are several reasons to oppose reopening the center. Children were held there in jail-like, regimented conditions. At one point, more than 2,000 youth ages 13-17 were detained, after entering the United States seeking refuge from violence and insecurity in their home countries. In February, it was reported that children were staying in the center an average of 67 days. It was the only detention facility for “unaccompanied minors,” who either entered the United States without a parent or were separated from their parents, run by a for-profit corporation.

Now there’s another reason to oppose reopening the center: The site may not be safe for kids or for employees.

WeCount!, a community organization in Homestead that promotes the rights, interests and well-being of the immigrant community, recently released a report on potential toxic contamination and chronic noise exposure at the Homestead center.

The detention center is on land that was once part of the Homestead Air Force Base. After Hurricane Andrew, the base went through a BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) process. Roughly a third of the base was transformed into what is now the Homestead Air Reserve Base, and the remaining two-thirds were designated for reuse and redevelopment.

A 40-acre parcel was transferred to the Department of Labor for a Job Corps campus in 1996. The facility opened in 1999 and closed in 2015, following the murder of a student due to negligence by the private contractor running the facility. The former campus was reopened as a detention center for migrant children in 2016, closed in 2017 and reopened by the Trump administration in March 2018 as the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Alien Children.

In early August, the shelter closed again.

The detention center is right next to a military Superfund site and surrounded by soil and groundwater contaminated with dangerous metal and chemicals — including arsenic and lead. Land just south of the center was used by the Air Force for the storage of hazardous waste, munitions and pesticides. The contaminants at these sites are harmful to human health and cause a variety of health problems, including cancer, kidney failure and developmental damage. Because of the dangers posed by this chemical contamination, residential development on land surrounding the shelter site isn’t allowed. But we can’t find any evidence that the shelter site has been tested for contaminants or evaluated specifically for child residents.

We are also concerned about chronic noise exposure at the former detention center. The facility is next to the runway of the Homestead Air Reserve Base, which flies F-16C fighter jets. A recent study places the center in a noise zone that — according to the U.S. Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development — is “normally unacceptable” for human residence. According to the World Health Organization, this level of sustained noise exposure can be damaging to kids’ cognition and development.

As we looked into the situation, we kept on thinking: Are we missing something? How is it possible for no one to have ever done environmental and noise testing when the shelter is surrounded by a military Superfund site and next to a military runway? When residential development is banned all around the site? Was there no concern for the young people staying there, whether in the “influx shelter” or when it was a Job Corps site?

We spoke with officials with the U.S. Air Force, the Environmental Protection Agency and Miami-Dade County. We reviewed documents from every database we could find. No one seems to know for certain whether the site is safe for residents and safe for detained children. With help from Earthjustice, we submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Labor, Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The deadline to respond was weeks ago, and we still have not received any information.

Through Earthjustice, we spoke with an environmental scientist, who reviewed the same government reports and materials. Jim Brinkman, a hydrologist who worked on toxic remediation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, said, as quoted in the report, “The Homestead shelter is located within a Superfund site with at least 16 known sources of contamination within two-thirds of a mile from the shelter.

“In August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew impacted the area and further spread contamination. Given the widespread distribution of contamination around the shelter and the lack of data at the shelter, children housed at the shelter will likely be exposed to unsafe level of hazardous chemicals both in the soil and emanating from the soil and shallow groundwater into the air.”

It is crucial for the safety of children and employees of the Homestead detention center that it not be reopened. Any further redevelopment or use of the Department of Labor site must be contingent upon appropriate environmental testing.

Jonathan Fried is the executive director of WeCount!. Lisa Evans is senior counsel with Earthjustice. The full report, Health at Risk, is available at www.we-count.org.