Residents of a predominately black neighborhood have joined together to file a class-action lawsuit against the city of Miami, saying government officials forced them to live for decades amid a toxic ash plume and then kept quiet after learning of widespread contamination.
More than 100 people in the West Grove say a city trash incinerator that burned rubbish and towered over their segregated community for nearly 50 years caused or contributed to their cancer, diabetes, leukemia, seizures, asthma and liver disease. The facility was shuttered by the courts in 1970, but contaminants left in the ground and discovered by the government at least six years ago are also blamed for health problems and depressed property values.
Even today, the city has yet to fully acknowledge or correct the problem, says Louise Caro, the Napoli Shkolnik attorney handling the case.
“We’re talking about generations here. If the stuff wasn’t still in the ground, there would be fewer people affected,” she told the Miami Herald. “We think it’s at least 14,000 people. It could be more.”
Of the dozens of clients named in a Sept. 25 letter Caro sent the city two days before filing the lawsuit, the complaint names 10 class representatives. Among them are Gerald Tinker, who won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics, and Yvette Styles, who grew vegetable gardens beneath the shadow of “Old Smokey” and played in a park next door while growing up.
Styles suffers from diabetes, developmental issues and has had multiple miscarriages, according to the lawsuit. Melinda Matheson, another named plaintiff who moved to the neighborhood much more recently, has three children who suffer from asthma, anemia and seizures.
We think it’s at least 14,000 people. It could be more
Louise Caro, attorney
Caro is seeking compensation for damages to her clients’ health and properties and is demanding that the city fund a medical monitoring program — something civic activists requested years ago.
“We’re looking into the allegations,” said City Attorney Victoria Méndez.
The lawsuit, which took years to put together, is the latest development in a long-running saga that began when Miami annexed the Bahamian enclave of the West Grove and erected the incinerator in the 1920s. The facility, which ran six days a week, 16 hours a day, at one point produced a ton of ash and smoke every day, exceeding pollution control measures until a judge ordered the incinerator shut down in 1970.
The site was razed, and a firefighter training center was built on the property. It was when Miami began work to expand the training facility in 2011 that an environmental consulting firm discovered elevated levels of arsenic, barium, lead and cadmium in the soil.
Rather than inform the neighborhood and rush to clean up the site, the city took two years to submit an environmental report to county regulators, who ordered expanded testing throughout the neighborhood. People in the neighborhood learned about the problem after a University of Miami student uncovered the Old Smokey site environmental report.
What ensued was an all-out public relations disaster for the city. Expanded testing found public parks, some of which had been converted from dumping grounds for incinerator ash, were tainted with contaminated soil that forced their closing. Talk of a pancreatic cancer cluster emerged as soil sampling was ordered down West Grove streets and onto private properties, though health officials have told the public that tainted soil does not pose an immediate risk.
We’re looking into the allegations
City Attorney Victoria Méndez
The new lawsuit, meanwhile, alleges that the city has yet to resolve its contamination problems, saying that The Barnyard, an after-care center erected on part of the Old Smokey property, and St. Alban’s Day Nursery nearby, also have soil that has tested positive for elevated levels of contamination. Perhaps most galling, Caro says, is that Armbrister Park, a field across the street from the old incinerator site used by public school kids, remains an open case with county environmental regulators, who contend it hasn’t been properly sealed.
“I think what we’re going to find through the course of this case is that the city knew a lot earlier than even we have alleged,” said Caro, whose clients are also suing SCS, a consulting firm that has worked with the city.
Potential class members include anyone who played at the city’s contaminated parks, attended the Barnyard and St. Alban’s, or lived within one mile of Old Smokey.