Poisoned: Asthma, Cancer, and Death Prowl a Miami Neighborhood
Cancer was killing Ethel Frazier. For a year, the disease wracked her body. Round after round of chemotherapy had left the 64-year-old frail and exhausted. By this past January, she was nearing the end.
Ethel's husband, Walter, couldn't understand why she was dying. A quiet man settling into retirement — at age 67, bits of gray were beginning to appear in his black hair — he had looked forward to a long life with his sweetheart. She had always been healthy. Aside from giving birth to their two daughters, Ethel had never needed a hospital trip. Her family's medical history was spotless too.
For nearly three decades, the couple had lived peacefully in their white single-story house with pink trim on a cul-de-sac near a park in Broadmoor, an industrial neighborhood just east of Hialeah. But during a routine checkup, doctors had found a tumor in her pancreas. There was little hope, they told him; Ethel had only a few months left.
As Walter, alone, made his way to Henry Reeves Elementary School in West Little River on January 18 for a community meeting, Ethel's health was very much on his mind. Too weak to come along this time, she had for years been a regular presence at community gatherings. Since she fell ill, neighbors had routinely visited the Frazier house to talk about the latest goings-on and bring piles of food and homemade remedies.
The meeting had been called to discuss a proposed change by King Metal Recycling & Processing, which had opened about half a mile from the Fraziers' home about two years earlier. The plant's owners wanted the county to allow them to operate closer to homes than would normally be allowed. Walter knew his neighbors would fight that change. They had constantly complained about the noise, heavy truck traffic, and dust since the plant's opening.
When he arrived at the school, he found a tense crowd of almost 40 people. Over the next hour, ten of them stood up, one after another. They talked about the noise and dust. But they also brought up health issues, how it had become hard to breathe recently.
Then, after the meeting, Walter and his neighbors talked about cancer. At least five people on his cul-de-sac were suffering from the disease. That included his next-door neighbor Robert Butler and a woman named Mary Alice Smith who lived a couple of houses away. "I thought that was unusual, to have that many in one area," Walter says. "I knew it had to be something. When it's specific to one area, that creates curiosity."
Walter wasn't alone in his fear. Others worried something in the air or water was making them sick. They suspected King Metal. But eventually, as they dug into their neighborhood's history, they found the place they had called home was more toxic than they could have imagined. Hundreds of public records and reports, stretching back decades, showed a neighborhood that had been inundated with heavy industry and dangerous chemicals. Contamination and cut-corner business practices were common. Local companies such as Adelman Steel, Burris Chemical, and Dimensional Plastics routinely broke the rules set out by the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM).
Neighbors wondered how much the county knew about the poison in the air, water, and ground, and why more hadn't been done to protect them.
"I have so much disrespect for the county," resident Dinet McCoy says. "After those companies have done so much harm, we were not informed about them."
Adds community activist Renita Holmes: "We're going to hold them accountable."
The neighborhood in Northwest Miami-Dade between NW 32nd and 36th avenues north of 79th Street has no fixed name. Some residents refer to it as Elson Manors, and others call it Broadmoor. To call it a part of Hialeah or West Little River, as some visitors and outsiders do, is just plain wrong. But regardless of the name, these neatly arranged pastel houses with wrought-iron fences and parched grass are home to Dinet McCoy and about 500 others.
For many years, McCoy has lived in a green one-story house on NW 35th Place at 87th Street. Just across the street is King Metal. Short and heavyset, she's from Honduras and speaks with a Caribbean lilt. For the past two years, McCoy has seen the air quality deteriorate. Worried that the soot and dust will get inside her house, she no longer opens her windows or the patio doors to her backyard. And she fears there is more than just dirt. "I had a serious problem last year," she says, sitting on the expansive leather couch in her living room. "It felt like something was stuck in my lung. I had a serious asthma attack."
It was so bad that McCoy spent Christmas 2011 wheezing and coughing at Jackson Memorial Hospital. She had never had a problem like this before, but in the past couple of years, her breathing had become shallower — more difficult.
Then, she says, "The neighbors started telling me about people who had respiratory problems."
Through her community activism, McCoy met Vanessa Shelton, a tall woman with close-cropped hair and a penchant for flowing blouses who has lived in the neighborhood for the past 30 years. After the community meeting about King Metal in January, the pair started to ask around about people's health. They began learning about others with asthma and breathing issues.
There was an even stranger revelation. Eight families reported that a relative had died of cancer recently; a ninth person was expected to die soon.
Although the people they interviewed didn't make the connection, the two thought there was a possible explanation for the recent health woes: King Metal. The plant — a two-acre, green-and-peach box of a building made of concrete and sheet metal — had already earned enmity in the area. Many neighbors complained incessantly about the noise of scrap metal being sheared and pounded flat at the plant on 36th Avenue.
(King Metal has been cited numerous times for minor violations, but no study has conclusively identified the plant as the source of any health problems or linked it to a potential cancer cluster. That issue is under investigation.)
Juan Heredia is among King Metal's closest neighbors. A wooden fence borders his backyard and a pothole-covered street, and from his porch he can see trucks go in and out of King Metal all day. It's not just the noise that bothers the 74-year-old Cuban immigrant. Every day, he says, black soot coats his house and car. And he no longer lets his granddaughters play outside on the swing set; he worries the fumes could make them sick or a truck could accidentally plow through the fence.
Then, this past January, the plant's owner, Pedro Amador, asked the county for a zoning change. The area near Broadmoor had been zoned as a mixed residential and industrial district. Amador wanted the county to approve an industrial classification that would allow unlimited manufacturing. The county zoning board called for a meeting at Reeves Elementary on January 18 to discuss the matter. A representative for King Metal presented residents with studies claiming the operation was safe and would not harm the neighborhood. At a second meeting, on February 15, Amador personally pleaded his case. But McCoy was dissatisfied. "He wanted the area to conform to him," she says.
That same month, McCoy says, she and some neighbors had a group meeting with Miami-Dade Commissioner Jean Monestime. They were also dissatisfied with his response. "He kind of washed his hands of the situation," she says.
("I don't know why anyone would feel that way," Monestime says in response to the residents' frustration. "As soon as we hear complaints, we get our staff on them.")
At the February 15 meeting, the community zoning board denied King Metal's request, but the plant was allowed to remain open while it met regulations. But McCoy and Shelton thought the health issues and King Metal's possible impact should be investigated. So this past July 19, they went before a public meeting of the Miami-Dade County Commission's zoning board to raise the alarm about a possible cancer cluster.
"With that recycling plant, in the last year or so, we had eight people die of cancer, and we expect another to die in the next two weeks," Shelton told the commissioners.
The response was immediate. Monestime jumped on the issue, calling for action against King Metal. "We have to make sure that they don't keep having an opportunity to affect people's lives," he said in the July 19 meeting.
Together, Monestime and Commissioner Barbara Jordan sponsored a resolution asking departments of health from both the county and state to study whether the cancer cluster claim was true and if a link to King Metal existed.
"If you have that many cases in close proximity, there's a strong possibility that it may be because of the contaminants coming from the recycling plant," Jordan said.
On September 6, the commission passed the resolution, which stated, "Based on anecdotal evidence, it is possible that an unusually high number of residents who live in the vicinity of Northwest 36th [Avenue] and Northwest 86th Street have had cancer... This Board urges the Florida Department of Health, and specifically the Miami-Dade Department of Health, to investigate and determine whether there is a cancer cluster among residents."
In conjunction, the county's Department of Permitting, Environment and Regulatory Affairs shut down King Metal. The reason, according to records, was that King Metal's temporary certificate of use and DERM permits had expired in July. In order to remain open, owners were supposed to enclose the facility, among other things. When that didn't happen, the county issued a cease-and-desist order. At the same time, the county health department announced plans to check the environment and test people to see if there was a link.
To Shelton and McCoy, it was a step in the right direction. "The county has been dealing with King Metal easy," Shelton says. "We don't want a slap on the wrist for them. We want action."
With thin-framed glasses and strands of gray hair ringing his balding head, Pedro Amador does not cut an imposing figure. Driving out of the parking lot of his Brownsville metal-parts manufacturing business in his shiny black Dodge Ram recently, he rolled down a window to speak with a New Times reporter. He was "not interested" in answering questions about King Metal or the county's investigation.
Five minutes later, a site supervisor led the reporter to Amador's office, where a written list of questions was dropped off. As the reporter walked away, the business owner shouted, "If you think you're such a big man, turn around and face me!" Fearing for his safety, the reporter exited. Amador hasn't responded to the missive.
But Amador's past is described in a decade's worth of public records, mostly arrest reports and lawsuits. They paint a picture of a businessman who has regularly run afoul of the law, regulatory agencies, the county, and even his own employees.
In the past decade, he and his companies have been sued ten times by various organizations and people. He has also been arrested twice in that span, including in 2010 for operating his newest business, King Metal, without a license or registration. During those last ten years, Amador and his brother Jorge, the plant's co-owner, have also been involved in a money-laundering case, three personal injury and wages lawsuits, and a suit filed by the county over a previous environmental issue.
One of the lawsuits, in which a crane allegedly injured a man's leg at King Metal, was settled for an undisclosed amount. Two other suits were also settled, and three more were dismissed. Pending is a claim by 11 former employees that King Metal failed to pay overtime wages, as well as a suit filed by a finance company against the plant over a contract debt. Finally, two more lawsuits resulted in judgments against Amador, including a $200,000 lien in 2010.
The county case came in 2008, when one of Amador's companies, E.M.R. Export, continued to operate despite an order from DERM to close.
"He was deeply engaged in trying to prevent us from shutting him down," Assistant County Attorney Tom Robertson says. "I've worked for Miami-Dade County for 27 years, and it's very unusual to see someone fight charges like that."
Originally a resident of Hialeah, the 48-year-old Amador has built his fortune on scrap metal and gears. He now lives in Davie, in a $600,000 house purchased in January 2011. The home sits in a bucolic gated community named Riverstone, with private security. No entrance is allowed without an appointment. It's 20 miles and several tax brackets away from the homes surrounding King Metal.
Amador has been in the metal and manufacturing business for 20 years. He and Jorge, age 42, opened J.C. Industrial Manufacturing Corporation in 1992 to fabricate industrial equipment. The Florida Department of Transportation and the Miami Beach Department of Public Works hired that firm in the late '90s to maintain and repair drawbridges. But that deal wasn't on the up-and-up, court records show. Prosecutors later alleged that Pedro and Jorge were illegally paying city, county, and state employees under the table to get those repair contracts sent their way. Then the brothers allegedly overcharged for their work and pocketed the difference.
Over the course of five years, prosecutors claimed, the Amadors raked in nearly $1 million in bogus charges. But an internal investigation in 2003 by the Florida Department of Transportation unraveled the scheme, and in 2005 the Amadors, along with four co-conspirators, were arrested and charged with fraud, racketeering, money laundering, and a host of other crimes.
Pedro pleaded guilty to fraud and received ten years' probation; Jorge pleaded no contest to falsifying records and got a year of probation. Though they were fined more than $300,000, the brothers kept their companies running. They were even allowed to bid on and receive county contracts.
In April 2008, the Amadors decided to expand their operations to include metal recycling. That August, regulators noticed the pair's newest company, E.M.R. Export, was engaging in metal recycling without proper permits, either from the county's Department of Planning and Zoning or from DERM, according to court records. When the county told Pedro to cease operation until he received the necessary go-aheads, he refused. So in December 2008, the county sued him to get the company shut down — at least temporarily.
When regulators toured the plant site at 3400 NW 62nd St. — which Pedro claimed was for metal storage — they found heaps of junk and trash mixed with scrap metal. "It's clear it was solid waste," Robertson says. "There were whole dryers in there. We saw the rear end of a car with the tires still on it in one pile."
Furthermore, Pedro claimed he wasn't processing the scrap metal, despite photo evidence that showed company employees shearing and cutting scrap metal on-site, Robertson says.
What's worse is that, according to the county, he was processing metal in an environmentally protected area, near a well field that provides water to the John E. Preston Water Treatment Plant in Hialeah. Any kind of metal processing or recycling was, by rule, strictly prohibited in that area.
"The actions of the defendants have caused damages to the environment of Miami-Dade County," the lawsuit stated.
Amador and the county settled in October 2010. He paid $50,000, and E.M.R. Export had its permit to operate renewed, provided it met a number of zoning requirements. According to records at the Florida Department of State's Division of Corporations, E.M.R.'s status has been inactive since December 2010.
The Amadors weren't done. In 2010, they purchased an abandoned steel mill in Broadmoor on NW 36th Avenue to use as a new recycling facility. A host of other heavy industries had taken root nearby. Just across NW 36th Avenue were dozens of small houses, as well as two schools: Madison Middle and Broadmoor Elementary. The residents and students were bounded on the west and south by railroads, highways, and manufacturing facilities.
According to public records, the Amadors opened King Metal Recycling & Processing for business in April 2010, only to run into trouble right from the start. That June, Miami-Dade detectives inspected the plant and discovered there was neither a license to operate nor a Florida Department of Revenue registration. There were also no accurate records of business. The Amador brothers, as well as the plant's two other owners, were booked on charges of operating a secondary metal-recycling business without a license and failure to maintain secondary metal-recycling records. But those charges were eventually dismissed, and once the Amadors got their papers in order, the business reopened.
The neighbors weren't as easy to shake. Over the next year, residents living near King Metal called DERM six times about the noise and dust the plant created. One complaint, filed January 27, 2011, stated King Metal was "burning metal at all hours of the day. Smoke escaping from property and effecting [sic] the neighborhood." After each complaint, DERM inspectors visited the plant to see if a pollution problem existed. Each time, they found nothing out of the ordinary.
"When our inspectors are there, they're not seeing plumes from the operation," says Lee Hefty, the assistant director of DERM. "We haven't found them in noncompliance."
So there didn't seem to be anything linking King Metal to any recent health problems. The company passed all of its monthly DERM inspections and had never been cited for contamination or pollution issues. When the county ordered the plant to shut down, Pedro Amador complied. "It seems to me he learned his lesson the first time," Robertson says.
Residents began to wonder if there had been more to the neighborhood's health problems than just one recycling plant.
The beige-yellow house with the white iron fence on NW 87th Terrace in Broadmoor used to have two occupants: Mary Alice Smith and her son, Todd Evans. A single mother, Mary Alice raised the boy alone in that house. Growing up, Todd remembers being drafted into chores on Saturdays, with mother and son cleaning the house as they listened to soul music. As the years went on, Todd left to live on his own, and Mary Alice stayed in Broadmoor.
Around January of 2011, doctors diagnosed the then-73-year-old Mary Alice with cancer in her uterine lining. Todd didn't know what to expect. His mother, though diabetic, had been healthy and in good shape. Physicians at Doctors Hospital in Coral Gables began chemotherapy as soon as possible and thought they'd beaten the disease. They performed blood tests in November, but the results were months in arriving.
"I knew something was wrong, because they took so long to get back to her," Todd says.
This past January, the doctors delivered the bad news: The cancer had returned. The day after the results arrived, Mary left her house for the hospital. She would never return home. On January 24, she was dead.
Todd first assumed it was just a peril of old age. But Mary Alice Smith wasn't the only Broadmoor resident to get sick or die from cancer. On her cul-de-sac, there have been two other deaths this year: Ethel Frazier and Robert Butler. Todd also knows of two other women on his mother's street who began battling cancer in the past year.
Initially, Todd blamed the local water and food for all the illnesses. He even began drinking only bottled water. Now, like many of Broadmoor's residents, he worries that something in the very air or water of the neighborhood is making people sick.
With Mary Alice gone, Todd is struggling to pay the mortgage on the house in which he grew up. But he doesn't want to give it up. "This home is a legacy. It's a major part of her," he says.
"My mother was a beautiful person," he adds. "She was the center of my universe. I miss having her, and I miss being able to speak to her." He pauses to collect himself. "I can't really think too far into it without crying."
Half a mile from King Metal, where NW 36th Avenue dead-ends at NW 76th Street, there is a small parking lot, some scraggly vegetation, and several construction trailers. Here, near some ramshackle tin-roofed houses and potholed streets, is one of Miami-Dade's 13 Superfund sites. Under the asphalt, the concrete, and the wheels of an occasional pickup truck, a stew of dangerous chemicals once threatened the health of thousands.
From 1957 until 1984, two plants spewed sulfuric acid, chromium, arsenic, and lead into the soil. Anaconda Aluminum and Milgo Electronics, which were headquartered here, poured waste into pits just a few feet above Dade's shallow drinking-water supply until federal regulators finally caught up with them. The companies paid large fines, and for years following the plants' closure, authorities excavated the site. Though people in the neighborhood and perhaps all over Northwest Miami-Dade for years were exposed to the lethal effluent through drinking water, finally, in July 1998, the site was declared safe.
In the lower-income neighborhoods of Miami-Dade, industrial operations have had little reason to worry about their environmental impact. Though car-repair shops, metal-processing facilities, gas stations, and other chemical-related businesses are located not far from homes in some cases, residents haven't complained much over the years.
King Metal is just Broadmoor's most recent example of a hated business. Consider not only the Anaconda/Milgo site, which is located a sparse half-mile from the neighborhood, but also Brenntag Mid-South Inc., a business right next to King Metal. A chemical storage and distribution company based in Kentucky, Brenntag has owned the plot of land at 8700 NW 36th Ave. for the past decade. Before then, the building and land belonged to Burris Chemical, which purchased the property from U.S. Steel in 1983. The warehouse there had been a storage facility for solvents since the '50s. In 1985, Burris learned that the groundwater and soil at its new property was contaminated with a variety of volatile and semivolatile compounds. They included butanone, an industrial solvent used to make plastics and paint remover; ethylbenzene, also used to make plastics; vinyl chloride, one of the chief ingredients in PVC; and chlorotoluene, a solvent and common additive in gasoline.
All of those chemicals, at high enough concentrations, can cause health problems in humans. Vinyl chloride, in particular, is a known carcinogen, according to the EPA.
The chemicals that contaminated the soil and groundwater at the Burris Chemical site did not affect drinking water or spread beyond the plant, DERM officials say. Upon discovering the issue, DERM and Burris immediately began soil removal and groundwater filtration. According to county records, the level of contamination was not high enough to create health problems.
A half-dozen other sites within a mile and a half of King Metal are listed on the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, a list of facilities that emit chemicals into the air, ground, or water. Miami-Dade County, through DERM, maintains its own list of contaminated sites, 84 of which are within a mile and a half of the plant and the neighborhood next to it.
Most of those chemical issues were discovered in the '80s and early '90s, when the EPA ramped up its efforts to investigate and eliminate potential toxic sites. They are diverse and extensive. Among them:
• MacMillan Oil Company of Florida, which is across the train tracks from King Metal, in 1991 had issues with elevated levels of benzene in the groundwater and in 1993 with lead on the property.
• At Star Chemical Company on NW 75th Street at 25th Avenue, inspections in 1990 and 1991 found levels of at least five chemicals exceeding Dade County groundwater standards, including chlordane, which has been linked to breast, prostate, and brain cancer, as well as leukemia and lymphoma.
• Angler Boat Corporation at NW 74th Street and 37th Avenue was cited March 1, 2007, for using "gel coats [that] exceed the organic hazardous air pollution content limit."
• Toro's Service Auto Repair at NW 87th Street and 32nd Avenue received multiple citations between 2009 and 2011 for improper storage and disposal of coolant, used absorbent, and wastewater.
Even on King Metal's land, there were pollution issues. Adelman Steel Corporation, which sold its property to King Metal in 2010, was cited in July 2005 for elevated levels of petroleum hydrocarbons in an on-site septic tank. In March 2009, a DERM inspection showed a paint-spraying booth in the facility was not filtered correctly, allowing toxic paint fumes to enter the atmosphere. Later that month, the company was reprimanded for keeping too many drums of hazardous waste on the property and not disposing of them promptly. In November 2009, the county cited Adelman for hazardous-waste storage — containers were leaking or not properly sealed.
Despite all of these violations, not one of these plants or facilities was permanently shut down by DERM or any other agency. Records show fines were relatively light, usually no more than a few thousand dollars. "You don't pass judgment on the specific operator," says DERM's Lee Hefty. "If you have something that's noncompliant, you try to get them compliant."
But even in compliance, health and environmental issues still exist. King Metal wasn't fully enclosed to prevent the spread of dust and soot. Metal dust from shearing, dust from the enamel paint on the scrap metal, and diesel fumes from trucks and forklifts have been linked to asthma, mesothelioma, and lung cancer, according to the American Lung Association.
Metal recycling can be done safely, but it's time-consuming and expensive, says Kyla Bennett, who works for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The air needs to be constantly and properly ventilated. Wastewater must be handled securely. Walls need to be in place, and anything but pure metal cannot be allowed. "Theoretically, it's possible to do in a clean way," Bennett says. "Would I want to live half a mile away? Absolutely not."
On September 14, as Miami-Dade Commissioners Jordan and Monestime, along with health department and DERM officials, toured King Metal, the place was quiet. But across the street, Dinet McCoy, Vanessa Shelton, and a dozen other Broadmoor residents sat on lawn chairs while fanning themselves in the heat and holding up cardboard signs that read, "Our Petition Will Be Granted." Though their illnesses had prompted the investigation, they weren't allowed inside. So they sat and waited to see what their elected leaders would tell them.
After an hour or so of poking around piles of scrap metal, the commissioners left the plant. The results were disappointing. "They came over and they didn't say what they'd found," McCoy says. "They didn't say anything. All they said was that they would have a meeting with us to discuss whatever they decided."
That meeting between the residents and the county has yet to happen. The investigation into King Metal and the possible cancer cluster continues, but the residents have yet to hear anything from any agency about the next step. Through spokeswoman Rosa Oses-Prealoni, the county health department declined to provide details on the investigation, saying only that it was ongoing.
McCoy and Shelton, with the help of local community activist Renita Holmes, have continued digging into their neighborhood's sordid toxic history. They've accumulated stacks of paper and public records, and regularly meet in McCoy's increasingly cluttered living room to plot the next move. Together, they've founded the Broadmoor Homeowners Association, and there have been talks of news conferences, neighborhood awareness meetings, and even legal action. But so far, they haven't made much progress.
"[The health department is] trying to get the county exempt from culpability, because the county is who gave these people permission to operate in this neighborhood, and they shouldn't have," McCoy says. "They're trying to work their way out of the situation."
No one knows for sure what roots the potential cancer cluster in Broadmoor could have. Nor is it clear why asthma is on the rise or breathing is so difficult. So far, no one has established a link between King Metal and the illnesses, and no explanation has been given.
McCoy and Shelton will continue asking questions and pressuring county officials. They will ask why they were kept in the dark about all the contamination in the area, and why so many companies have been allowed to pollute and poison the environment.
In his home on the cul-de-sac, Walter Frazier simply wants to know whether his neighborhood is safe. He doesn't want to see any more of his neighbors or friends fall ill or die, like his wife Ethel. "I still live here, and I don't plan to leave," he says.
As Walter and his family cared for Ethel, she told her husband of 35 years that she had no regrets and that he shouldn't either. "She told me that I had done everything I could to help her," he says.
The same can't be said for Miami-Dade County.
"More could be done," Walter says.
Ethel Frazier died May 27. "My sweet Mrs. Frazier, may you rest in peace," wrote Paula Vereen, a friend from Hollywood. "Your smile will never be forgotten... May God give you comfort during these times."
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