Why the wait? Though that too is unclear, the environmental engineers, in their 366-page assessment report, described the cumbersome consequence of reporting the results and counseled the hiring of an attorney.

So far, neither the consulting engineers nor DERM have pinpointed the contamination's origin. DERM's longtime environmental chief, Wilbur Mayorga, says the county is pocked with former dump sites — some legal, some not. Where they are, he says, is often a surprise.

Improbably, the house opened to the public in late August for a weekend garage sale featuring tacky, overly padded furniture and kitschy bric-a-brac. The caretaker told a visitor the sheik was making way for a new owner, later identified by neighbors to be a 40-something Venezuelan ex-pat named Isaac Perez.

Pat Kinsella

In late September, the property sold for $11.4 million — just under half the already-reduced asking price. A newly formed corporation — 3500 St. Gaudens LLC — holds the deed. State records list Key Biscayne's Isaac R. Perez as the corporation's manager and president and Odette Perez as vice president. According to news reports, two siblings of the same names are heirs to a Venezuelan oil fortune (their uncle was a founder of OPEC). They fled to Key Biscayne in 2002 after their alleged involvement in a failed attempt to overthrow President Hugo Chavez.

Attempts to reach the Perezes were unsuccessful. Neither brokers involved in the deal nor South Miami contractor John Kovacs of Ikon Builders, which commissioned the environmental assessment reports, were available for comment. And two environmental attorneys who helped navigate the regulatory maze, John McNally and Kerri Barsh, also did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment.

In any case, the owners — whoever they may be — have until November 13 to submit a plan detailing how they intend to clean up the soil and protect the groundwater. Given the tests results, that remedy will likely require removal of the contaminated soil — a ghastly expensive, loud, and time-consuming undertaking; groundwater protection may be even more challenging.

But a preliminary report, submitted to DERM in September, suggests a less costly remedy. The buyer, the report says, intends to build five luxury residences with driveways and other impermeable surfaces that will limit toxic exposure. Elsewhere, two feet of clean fill will cap the contaminated soil, rendering it safe.

For now, though, DERM is demanding tightly restricted access to the walled-in property. But on a recent weekday morning, both drive gates on the property's north side were open, allowing a visitor to roam freely across the toxic landscape. In the exposed soil, churned by demolition of the once-grand residence, the unmistakable mix of incinerator ash sparkled in the sunlight.

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