|Happy Anniversary, Merrie Christmas Park|
|Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor|
It’s been a year since toxic soil cleanup
Today, Coconut Grove’s Merrie Christmas Park has a clean bill of health. But that wasn’t always the case.
Back in 2013 it was discovered that decades earlier, toxic heavy metals had likely been dumped at the park site from a City of Miami incinerator. As reported in the Miami Herald in September 2013, county environmental inspectors found melted glass and high levels of copper, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and barium in soil samples taken from Merrie Christmas Park, following the discovery of similar toxins at Blanche Park, two miles away on Shipping Avenue in Coconut Grove.
The presence of the glass and metals suggested it was from incinerator ash.
The 5.38-acre park, located on S. Le Jeune Road and Barbarossa Avenue in the south Coconut Grove neighborhood bordering Coral Gables, just east of the Coral Gables Waterway, sat on the site of an old limestone quarry dating back to the 1920s that produced rock used in making streets in the area. It was purchased from the county for a dollar in 1954 and was later christened Merrie Christmas Park in 1958, named for the five-year old daughter of Randy Christmas, who served as Miami’s mayor from 1955-1957.
Although it’s unknown exactly when the metal ash was dumped on the property, it was considered a common practice during the 1950s to mix sandy ash with debris to fill in old quarries. We now know that dumped smoke ash is more dangerous than ash spread by air; the metals don’t break down once they’re deposited, keeping concentrations high. The Herald reported that Blanche Park was originally a limestone pit purchased in 1943 as a dumping ground for trash before it became a park.
Contaminated soil was initially found in 2011 at the fire department training facility at 3425 Jefferson St. in west Coconut Grove, which was previously the site of “Old Smokey,” the city incinerator that operated for almost 50 years and was closed in 1970 following complaints and lawsuits. The soil study findings went public when they were accidently discovered by UM student Zach Lipshultz in 2013 while doing unrelated research. Citizen complaints forced officials to take action.
First the county ordered soil sampling to be done within a one-mile radius of the fire facility, followed by then City of Miami District 2 Commissioner Marc Sarnoff asking the city to test area parks and schools. When studies showed toxins at Blanche and Merrie Christmas Parks, Mayor Tomás Regalado ordered all 112 city parks tested.
Merrie Christmas Park was entirely closed in September 2013, but contamination was subsequently found in only a small section on the southwest side of the park, which included a portion of the playground; in February 2014, all but this area was reopened to the public. Soil contamination affected 11 city parks in all, seven of which were found to have toxic ash. One county park was also affected. Three other municipal incinerators could have been the source of the ash.
By the fall of 2014, the city’s cleanup plan for Merrie Christmas Park was waylaid by a group of concerned neighbors led by Ken Russell, who lives across the street from the park. Friends of Merrie Christmas Park learned the city planned to leave the toxic soil where it was rather than remove it, but add two feet of clean soil on top. The city also wanted to dig up some of the tainted soil and spread it to other parts of the park to level out the bowl-shaped greenspace.
Not being a part of the environmental remediation plan outraged the citizen group. Also of concern was a possible property appraiser designation for homes within a quarter mile of the park as being next to a contamination site.
Commissioner Sarnoff said the city could not pay for the toxic soil removal and that their plan for capping the toxic site was safe, bolstered by environmental officials and engineers. But tell that to property owners watching cleanup crews in hazmat suits from their front yards. By the end of October 2014, the city announced the toxic dirt would be removed.
The revised remediation procedure involved digging out the contaminated soil and sealing off the area with two feet of clean soil on top. A liner was installed between the soil and the new turf. The park’s massive banyan trees were surrounded with rubber mulch glued in place and the fenced-in playground was refurbished, given a new rubber flooring surface.
According to the office of new District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell, whose cleanup activism sparked his first run for office and was elected to Sarnoff’s vacant seat in November 2015, groundwater wasn’t impacted, and future soil and groundwater monitoring won’t be necessary. After 18 months and a cost of $1.69 million, paid for with Miami’s decade-old Homeland Defense Neighborhood Improvement Bond, the final section of the park reopened in March 2015.
According to Commissioner Russell, Merrie Christmas Park is in good shape now. “My children and I played there this afternoon,” says Russell in an e-mail to the BT. “I have to say that I see more activity and joy in the park than ever before, and I have lived in front of it for 13 years. There are plenty of opportunities for improvement, but no more than any other park that has its share of upkeep and upgrades. Most of the neighbors that I meet in the park are aware of its history and are very thankful and happy with regard to the remediation.”
Before its reopening, new sidewalks and a drinking fountain were installed. Picnic tables and benches dot the landscape, as do many leafy trees. Poinciana and pines, oaks and banyans make the park picturesque, the banyans looking more like fantastical hobbit dwellings than real trees. Many of their limbs bear the carved witness of visitors down through the decades. While Coral Gables has removed its coconut palms, you can still find them in Coconut Grove. Bordering street Barbarossa Avenue has a sidewalk lined with them, and the concrete path meanders into the park property at Le Jeune.
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
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