'Old Smokey' Toxic Legacy


When she was little, Elaine Taylor remembers rushing home whenever Old Smokey fired up. Clouds of ash from the towering trash incinerator would fill the air and settle on the ramshackle houses and the yards of the West Grove neighborhood.

Her mother, who took in laundry, would be whipping sheets and shirts off the clotheslines. Often, the soot would force Elaine and her mother to wash everything again, by hand.

Old Smokey was shut down in 1970, after 45 years of belching ash, but its legacy might be more ominous than mere memories of soiled laundry. Residents of the neighborhood, established by Bahamian immigrants in the 1880s, have become alarmed by recent revelations that soil samples there show contamination from carcinogens like arsenic and heavy metals, including lead, cadmium and barium.

Ash from the old incinerator is being blamed, and residents are asking why none of this came to light sooner.

“They didn’t want to let it be known, so they kept it hush-hush,” said Delphine Sweatman, who has lived in the same house for 40 years and has stopped taking her three grandchildren to local parks. “I don’t think that’s right.”

Miami officials discovered contamination two years ago at the site of Old Smokey, now a training center for firefighters, but they did not alert residents of the area. A report on the findings remained under wraps until a city employee revealed its existence this year to a University of Miami law professor, Anthony V. Alfieri, who directs the law school’s Environmental Justice Project.

Once the presence of toxins was made public, officials scrambled to commission tests of soil samples in the immediate area. They later expanded the investigation to include 7 parks, 17 private properties, 4 churches and 12 green spaces in the West Grove and in adjoining Coconut Grove, as well as in Coral Gables, a separate municipality.

At a briefing for residents last week, Wilbur Mayorga, a Miami-Dade County environmental official, said testing results suggested that the amount of toxins in the West Grove sites was “unlikely to cause illness,” and that arsenic, for instance, can occur naturally in the area’s soil and limestone. Marc Sarnoff, a Miami commissioner, said the West Grove had received “a clean bill of health.”

“Everything is testing to be residential standard,” Mr. Sarnoff said, referring to contaminant levels permitted under environmental regulations.

That may not be the final word. A cancer researcher at the University of Miami said that she and several colleagues discovered a cluster of pancreatic cancer cases in the West Grove several years ago.

“That’s the little region that lights up,” said the researcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the issue. Although she found the discovery “puzzling,” she said she did not pursue it because of a lack of funds. But when she read a newspaper article this year about Old Smokey that said its ash had spewed arsenic and heavy metals into the neighborhood, she said “everything started making sense.”

The researcher noted that no correlation could be established between the cancer cluster and the old incinerator without more research.

In any event, some longtime residents now have at least a clue as to what might have made them sick. “I’m dying of cancer,” said Vernon Clark, 77, who once ran for a city commission seat. “My brother has cancer,” said Mr. Clark, who walks slowly, using a golf club as a cane. “My mother died of it.”

Residents recall that red-hot ash from Old Smokey, which could pulverize and burn 300 tons of trash a day, sometimes sparked fires on nearby roofs and in trees. In the 1950s, according to The Miami Herald, pilots descending toward Miami International Airport resorted to instrument landings when the smoke became too dense.

“There were a lot of people living around that thing — they were not protected,” said Marion Culmer Wright, 86, who remains in the dusty frame house where her parents married in 1917. She remembers the soot on the eight Australian pines her father had planted, one for each of his children, that were later taken down when the city widened the road.

Across the street from Old Smokey’s former site lies Esther Mae Armbrister Park and its playground. Down the block is George Washington Carver Elementary School, a once all-black institution that traces its history to 1899. Former students recall ash blowing in through the school’s open windows.

Professor Alfieri said that the construction of Old Smokey “in the middle of a Jim Crow community” in 1925 exemplified the city’s pattern of neglecting the West Grove, an area that has never experienced the prosperity so evident in its neighboring communities. In a 1950 article in Ladies’ Home Journal, Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote that when the city installed a water and sewage system in Coconut Grove, its western neighbor was left out of the project, and for years residents continued to use wells and outhouses.

Paradoxically, the worst toxin levels found in the recent testing were not in the West Grove but in Coconut Grove’s Blanche Park, the site of a popular playground and a dog park. Workers removed lead-contaminated soil this month and paved over a parking lot, and officials declared the problem contained.

“My daughter learned to crawl in that sand,” said Dawn McCarthy, the mother of two girls who frequented Blanche Park. “We’re all praying there’s nothing wrong, but we’re terrified. None of us go to that park anymore.”

By: Nick Madigan