There's more than meets the eye on the pristine grounds of Key Largo Hammock Botanical Park.
The documents were obtained through a public records request by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is now accusing the Department of Environmental Protection of failing to notify the public that the grounds are contaminated and with blocking efforts to monitor and remove contaminated soil.
"This is outrageous. DEP has known about serious toxic contamination in one of its own parks for half a dozen years and has not lifted a finger," said a statement from Jerry Phillips, director of Florida PEER. "If this was some mom-and-pop shop, DEP would have thrown the book at them, but the agency somehow exempts itself from its own rules."
The park is located on grounds that once belonged to the Key Largo Air Force Station. One of the contaminated areas is near the former site of an underground storage tank that was part of a Nike missile launch site. The other contaminated area of the park was a former skeet shooting range.
Around 2005, DEP contracted consulting firm Metcalf & Eddy to investigate the sites for lingering industrial waste. About a year later, the consulting firm delivered the bad news that soil samples had too much lead and arsenic.
PEER alleges that after getting the news, DEP blocked Metcalf & Eddy from "opening any monitoring wells or removing contaminated soil." The nonprofit alleges that the DEP is mandated by state law to fully analyze the contaminated area, notify the public, and come up with a plan to clean up the site.
DEP spokeswoman Reena Bhardwaj tells New Times that the agency has "restricted the use of that area of the park." Bhardwaj did not comment on allegations that the DEP failed to notify the public of the contamination and blocked the consulting firm from further monitoring the situation.
Key Largo Hammock Botanical Park is a hub of biodiversity and home to 84 species of protected plants and animals.
PEER has requested that the inspector general "find out why the DEP has violated its own very clear rules."