Toxic Justice

Investigators caught Manuel E. Rojas and his company attempting to dump toxins in the Everglades. Sounds like a simple case to prosecute. It wasn't.

The sting hadn't taken long for Gilbert to set up. Just two days earlier he'd received a phone call from a confidential informant who told him that a company was looking to hire someone to get rid of some drums filled with toxic substances.

But Gilbert's investigation actually had begun three months earlier, with another ringing of another phone on a cool day in February 1997. The phone was answered by Cathy Porthouse, a coordinator for the DEP's Bureau of Emergency Response (BER). The call was coming from someone at the Miami-Dade Department of Emergency Resource Management (DERM), which had been told about a possible dumpsite in northern Miami-Dade County. DERM was too busy to handle the call. Could she go out there?

Porthouse left her small office in the Florida Marine Patrol headquarters building in Port Everglades (an office bedecked with photographs of her fishing, sailing, snorkeling, and squeezing off rounds from her standard-issue 9mm Beretta side arm) and climbed into her Ford F-150 white pickup and drove southwest, to the border of the Everglades. There, she parked the truck and stepped into "the most disgusting thing I think I've ever seen."

For someone in Porthouse's position, that's saying something. Anytime an abandoned metal drum, or any other kind of container that may harbor hazardous materials, is reported to authorities in South Florida, chances are good that Porthouse will be the first on the scene. In four years on the job she's learned to be ready for anything. "I've seen drums filled with methyl-ethyl death," she says, "and I've seen drums filled with concentrated orange juice -- you just never know."

Not only was there a plethora of abandoned drums littering this gravel access road to a rock quarry off Okeechobee Road, but there were also "goat hides, guinea hens, rabbits, a dead cow, a dead dog, a pile of ducks, and maggots. Thousands and thousands of maggots. It was just... gross."

Porthouse could tell that the access road, just southwest of the intersection of I-75 and the Florida Turnpike extension in Miami-Dade County, "had become a common dumping ground." The ditches were lined with buckets and trays of used fuel oil, a sign that truck drivers knew the spot. Porthouse thought the dead animals were possibly the remains of Santeria sacrifices.

Now it was time to clean up the mess. In this case, however, the mess was more than Porthouse could handle alone. When dealing with drums filled with unknown chemicals, one doesn't just load them up and haul them to the nearest high-temperature incinerator, their typical destination. "When you have a flammable chemical in a drum with only a quarter headspace -- that is, when the drum's three-quarters full -- you can have vapor building up to such intense pressure that what you're really dealing with is an unexploded bomb," she explains. "I've seen them explode."

And that appeared to be the situation. One of the drums was so swollen and distended that a special backhoe had to be called in with a non-sparking copper spike and a heavy metal shield to protect the operator. The spike is used to punch a hole in the drum, relieving the pressure and reducing the chances of an explosion.

Still, the danger was there. Most of the drums contained (as Porthouse later learned) used industrial solvents such as toluene mixed with heavy metals such as cadmium, chromium, and lead. "This stuff had a flashpoint of less than 70 degrees, meaning any kind of spark at normal temperatures would have set it off," Porthouse says. Breathing the gases in concentrated form could have easily caused sickness or death. This time Porthouse and the crew of environmental contractors she was supervising were lucky; the drum was punctured without a spark or a bang.

As the cleanup proceeded, so did the detective work. The other facet to Porthouse's job is to track drums to their source. First, the entire dumpsite, as well as each individual drum, was photographed from different angles. A detailed record was created listing every mark and notation on every drum. Soil samples were taken to a depth of six feet. The contents of every abandoned drum on the site were sampled, and the samples were sent to a laboratory in Tallahassee to be tested.

Porthouse didn't have much hope for success. Normally, sleuthing of this sort is a fruitless venture. Less than ten percent of abandoned-drum investigations result in criminal charges, mostly because it's difficult to prove that a particular person or company ordered a particular drum to be dumped, according to BER environmental specialist Kyle Boudreaux. Steel drums are used and reused in various industries, and to prove that a drum came from a specific business is next to impossible.

"In other places, like Detroit, you've got major industry," says Joe Stilwell, director of DERM. "Here in South Florida, you've got thousands of small businesses, many of them tiny mom-and-pop operations, and many of them run on a shoestring,"

Even so, when Porthouse comes across a particularly nasty site, she always tries to trace its ownership with help from the DEP's Office of Investigations. And sometimes they get a break.

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