County found toxic soil at park, but decided it wasn’t bad enough to tell residents

Devon Aire Park is a West Kendall hub, hosting youth sports games, serving as a playground for neighborhood kids and as a field for physical education classes at a next-door school.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Miami-Dade tested Devon Aire for contamination as part of a countywide screening of parks — and found concentrations of arsenic above the normal level.

But the county failed to notify the school district or neighborhood residents until June of this year. The Florida Department of Health determined that the arsenic levels at Devon Aire weren’t high enough to pose a health risk, according to county officials. Arsenic occurs naturally in South Florida, but can be harmful if enough contaminated soil is ingested or inhaled.

Still, some residents are angry they were not told immediately.

“It’s just frustrating that no one knows about these situations,” said Kendall resident Ellen Mitchell, who frequently takes her grandchildren to the park. “We don’t know about these things until it’s too late.” Mitchell said she didn’t find out about the contamination until June 5, when the county’s environmental monitoring division hosted a public meeting to inform residents.

School Board member Lubby Navarro also expressed frustration with the lack of communication. Some 1,500 kids attend Devon Aire K-8 center, where students use the park as field and playground.

“The safety of our children is of utmost importance and we want to make sure we know as soon as we can so we can develop a plan,” Navarro said. “Collaboration between governments is key, especially when you have such a sensitive issue that affects our community.”

Last week, Navarro sponsored a measure requesting that the county and other government agencies that have joint-use agreements with schools notify the board of any environmental contamination in an “expeditious manner”.

“There has to be communication and collaboration in order for the community to be properly informed,” Navarro said.

The county acknowledged that school officials should have been notified earlier. “We are looking into where there was a communication breakdown,” said county parks spokeswoman Victoria Galan.

Since the arsenic levels in the soil are not believed to be dangerous, however, Galan said the county did not immediately host a public meeting, instead posting its findings online and keeping the park open. “We take direction from the Health Department in regards to closing parks or maintaining our operations and as long as we get the all clear we will keep the park open,” Galan said.

Higher than normal levels of arsenic were first detected at Devon Aire Park near the end of 2014, said Wilbur Mayorga, the county’s division chief of environmental monitoring and restoration. After additional testing, the county determined that the arsenic was concentrated at four sites in the park. The naturally occurring levels of arsenic in the area — known as background levels — are between 6 and 7 milligrams per kilogram, according to Mayorga, but levels at the contaminated sites were as high as 74.3 milligrams per kilogram.

While that might sound like a lot, the Department of Health already determined that at other parks with higher concentrations of arsenic, the potential health risk was minimal. Even so, the county recommended at its public meeting that children wash their hands after playing in the soil.

Mitchell said that despite the county’s assurances, she was alarmed after the June meeting. She said she asked county officials if they could guarantee students weren’t going to get sick from the contaminated soil.

“They said they couldn’t guarantee that,” she said. “They said the only way you could get sick is by ingesting or inhaling it. Well if you’re playing baseball on the field and kicking that dirt around…are you serious?”

As soon as Mitchell left the meeting, she called her son, who lives just blocks from the park, and warned him about the potential danger. Then she contacted the principal of Devon Aire K-8 Center and Navarro, which is how the school district first learned of the contamination, Navarro said.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he contacted County Mayor Carlos Gimenez as soon as he heard about the arsenic. Gimenez promised the county would immediately notify the school district in the future, Carvalho said.

County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava was also notified about the contamination, which is in her district, for the first time this summer. She said she immediately pushed for a public meeting to inform residents. She also asked that the contamination be removed, but was told there were no funds available for the cleanup. By July, however, the county had identified the necessary funds and started the process of removing the contamination.

Three of the contaminated sites will be cleaned up by the time school starts, Mayorga said, and the fourth site will be safe a few weeks after that. In the meantime, the contaminated areas have been cordoned off to keep children out. A second public meeting has been scheduled for Aug. 28.

“We know there is a lot of concern out there and we hope this pubic meeting will help to allay fears and kids can go back to playing,” Levine Cava said.

Mitchell said she has continued to take her grandchildren to the park, but keeps a watchful eye to make sure they stay far away from the contamination. “When we do go up there, we don’t go anywhere near it,” she said. After her experience, Mitchell said she urges residents who live near other county parks to call county officials and ask whether their park has been tested.