Lead is found in soil at Bayfront Park

Miami’s Bayfront Park, once considered the city’s front porch and later recast as its village green, joined the growing list of parks with contaminated soil.


Workers completing a survey of the city’s 112 parks last week spotted what they suspected was melted glass near the middle of the 32-acre park, Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo said Wednesday. They then took six soil samples in three nearby locations.


While surface soil showed no levels of toxic lead — the chemical environmentalists consider a “driver” for contamination — one sample further down, between six inches and a foot deep, tested positive for lead above allowable limits.


The city must now conduct additional testing to determine the extent of the contamination, said Wilbur Mayorga, the county’s chief of pollution control.

But unlike contamination linked to toxic incinerator ash that closed four parks and led to sections of two others being fenced off, Mayorga does not anticipate closing Bayfront.


“This is not the same as the other situations, like at Merrie Christmas Park, where the results were in the thousands,” he said. “This is not Blanche Park, where you have playgrounds. These were taken along pathways.”


Mayorga learned of the findings Wednesday when city staff held a meeting with the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management to address the ongoing park clean-up. During the meeting, he said, city staff said they wanted to report the early findings at Bayfront but did not yet have formal lab reports.


While the samples showed levels above allowable limits, he stressed they did not meet the threshold considered a hazard to health by the state Department of Health.

“This is obviously just the first step. It’s in the early stages of the city of Miami conducting the proper assessment,” he explained. “I don’t have the lab data and we typically don’t provide an opinion until we get the lab data.”


Since last summer, contamination linked to toxic incinerator ash has been found in six city parks and a seventh park in the county, near the site of an old Coral Gables incinerator, off Coral Way and 72nd Avenue. Heavy metals in the ash, including lead, arsenic and barium, can cause a host of health problems, particularly in young children.

Addressing the contamination is expected to cost in the millions and take months to complete.

The findings also prompted the city to inspect all 112 of its parks, paying close attention to the land’s past use. Parks were historically built on cheap land, including old dump sites and quarries.


Blanche Park, the first park flagged for contamination, was purchased by the city in 1943 to use as a dump before it was reclaimed as a park in 1962. Nearby Merrie Christmas Park, also found with contaminated soil, was a rock pit. Other parks where contaminated soil was found include Douglas, Curtis, Southside, Brothers to the Rescue and Billy Rolle Domino Park. All but Brothers to the Rescue are in Miami.


In the 1970s, the city created Bicentennial Park, just north of Bayfront, out of the old Port of Miami docks and boat slips. In 2010, testing at the site now occupied by the Perez Art Museum found elevated levels of arsenic and other contaminants most likely leached from old underground oil tanks left in place and unregulated fill dumped in the slips.


But Bayfront Park is different, officials say.

“It’s the second park in the city of Miami from the 1920s and it’s built on fill from the bay bottom,” said Tim Schmand, executive director of theBayfront Park Management Trust, the nonprofit that runs the park for the city.


After buying a strip of long bayfront land from the Florida East Coast Railway in 1922 and another smaller piece two years later, the city began constructing what was then a 62.5-acre park. It built a retaining wall, according to an account by Miami historian Paul George, and for the next seven months pumped fill from the bay bottom day and night to create the park.


The park officially opened in 1925, filled with palm trees and royal poincianas and lined with hibiscus hedges. In the 1980s, famed architect Isamu Noguchi redesigned the park, now half its size, into a minimalist swath of sunbaked open space, which left it largely unused for decades.

Four years ago, the park trust unveiled a shady renovation that included more than 150 trees, new walkways, bike racks, a sandy beach and a makeover of its historic rock garden surrounding a pond and waterfall.


The area where contamination was found, Schmand said, is bordered by walkways, but is largely empty and unused.

“There’s trees growing there and an electrical panel,” he said.

“It’s a concern,” he said. “We’re going to do whatever is suggested for us to do to make sure the areas are safe and available to the public — or not available to the public, until they’re made safe.”