Old Smokey issue gives us an opportunity to educate

There are few terms that have the ability to instantaneously strike fear in the hearts of parents and as we have learned over the past few months in the Grove. Soil sample is one of them.

And while most parents are talking about Blanch Park and the West Grove Community Center, the current soil samples were taken from areas within a mile radius of the Old Smokey inclinator site, which is today the City of Miami’s Fire Rescue Training Facility. That mile radius includes George Washington Carver Middle, George Washington Carver Elementary, Frances S. Tucker Elementary and Coral Gables Senior High.

Today as we all look over the environmental reports and await official word from DERM (now known as Regulatory and Economic Resources, RER) on the samples taken from these schools it is important to take a step back and consider what we can learn and teach our children from this experience.

The first is a lesson about history and how decisions made a little less than 100 years ago are affecting us today. Old Smokey was built on 3425 Jefferson St. in mid 1920s at the cost of $65,000, which were collected from the residents of Coconut Grove prior to their annexation by the City of Miami. Old Smokey was touted as the Cadillac of all incinerators and open in 1925 with the promise of incinerating 100 tons of garbage every 24 hours. The news reports, with much fanfare, highlighted that the furnace was kept burning night and day and was attended by seven men.

At the time, incineration was becoming popular and seen as an efficient means of deposing of garbage (then called rubbish). There were little concerns about the byproducts of incineration since burn piles and burn barrels were culturally accepted. In fact, Old Smokey was in its day a beacon of progress for the Magic City which hoped to reduce landfills and prevent residents from burning their own waste.

At the time scientist marveled at all the possible uses of incinerators which later included the generation of electricity. The output of ash was seen merely as a nuisance to the surrounding neighbors and little was understood about what exactly was being emitted into the atmosphere through Old Smokey’s flue. Today we know that the byproducts of Old Smokey’s production from 1925 to 1970, when it was closed by litigation initiated by the City of Coral Gables, contained heavy metals, dioxins, furans, sulfur dioxide, methane and hydrochloric acid.

The timing of Old Smokey’s closing is significant because incineration was at its most popular in the 1960s and it was in 1963 when the City of Miami sued the engineers of the site for poor ash filtration. Specifically, the news reports at the time stated that the ash embers from Old Smokey had set fire to surrounding structures and that residents within a mile of the site reported being affected by soot from the facility.

On Nov. 5, 1970 Old Smokey was shut down and declared a public and private nuisance. And while the 1970s brought stricter regulation of incinerators, for the Grove and areas of Coral Gables, the damage was done.

Today, Miami-Dade County Public Schools (MDCPS) is committed to providing a safe and healthy environment for our students and informing parents of any and all information we receive from DERM (RER). As the school board member who represents the area I am committed to going above and beyond whatever recommendation DERM (RER) makes to insure that our schools are safe.

I also am committed to taking this opportunity to work with the wonderful science teachers at George Washington Carver Middle, George Washington Carver Elementary, Frances S. Tucker Elementary and Coral Gables Senior High and educate our youngest residents about Old Smokey and the environmental fragility of our area.

Because while our current societal focus is consumption, Old Smokey and environmental disasters like it teach us that we are all connected, that from the air we breathe to the water we drink we cannot abuse the natural world and expect it to heal itself.

That we are stewards of our environment and that rather than consumption we should seek connection; foster a lifelong love of the natural world and ask the hard questions about the long term impact of the environmental decisions that we are making today.

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