The Dirt on Dania
West Dania Beach Boulevard dead-ends at a weedy canal, making for a perfect out-of-the-way dumping ground. Even after the rest of the town's fertile tomato fields turned into working-class neighborhoods over the years, the plot housed little more than trees, trash, and dirt.
But between 2002 and 2004, when the ground was cleared for the construction of warehouses, whatever was buried in the soil was stirred up.
For years, the place had been an illegal dumpsite, where businesses and private citizens deposited worn-out tires, unwanted furniture, old refrigerators, fuel tanks, even asbestos shingles.
And worse. Or so say neighbors and workers who became sick when a developer started clearing out the site and stirred up a toxic blend of soil and chemicals.
Until bulldozing and digging commenced on the site in 2002, residents didn't think much about the vacant land. Afterward, it became the primary suspect responsible for a host of health problems.
"We would see dead animals out there," says Debra Wallace, who lived directly across the street. Her two dogs would run through the dirty lot and come back vomiting, she says. She and her four children started noticing the same symptoms: burning, watery eyes, nosebleeds, vomiting. "But we didn't make a connection," she says.
Whenever it got hot and dry, dust blew down the streets. During heavy thunderstorms, muddy rivers streamed from the site.
Wallace discovered that some neighbors had been experiencing similar symptoms: respiratory ailments and skin rashes. She and neighbor Lueron Dixon started making phone calls. Former Mayor and then-City Commissioner Robert Chunn met with residents at the end of West Dania Beach Boulevard, an area known as Camp Blanding.
Chunn got the message firsthand. "My head started hurting," he recalls. "I felt all nauseous, couldn't breathe."
By then, Dixon had consulted an attorney. When he met with her at her home across the street from the construction site, he also became ill. "Dust was blowing over here like Desert Storm," Dixon says. Wallace wrote letters to the city, explaining the problem and asking for help. "I knew something was seriously wrong," Wallace says, "and I knew it wasn't just my family."
She eventually became so ill that she had to be hospitalized. When her daughter took her to the emergency room in early 2004, doctors first thought it was a heart attack. "I almost died," she says. She managed to move her family to another neighborhood, but she was too sick to clean the apartment so she could get her deposit back; she paid a friend to do it. "And she got sick," Wallace explains, "and couldn't even finish."
The parcel of land had been vacant for as long as anyone can remember. County aerial maps show that the area was once a rock pit. According to county records, in the summer of 1980, the parcel was transferred from the City of Dania Beach and Broward County to Lena and Paul Piccirillo, who let the land sit idle. Then, in 2001, the couple sold the land to Dania Distribution Centre Inc., which intended to turn it into a warehouse complex.
Robert Clifford Scott's engineering firm had been contracted in 2002 by Dania Distribution Centre's owner, Lauris Boulanger, to lay down the basic infrastructure for the warehouse site water, sewage, drainage, filling in of the land which meant he and his crew were digging in the contaminated soil.
"We asked for an engineer's report [from the property owner]," Scott says, "which they gave us saying there was no pollution there." A call to Boulanger was not returned.
Scott and his crew excavated tons of garbage from the soil; the deeper they dug, the worse they felt.
"My men kept getting skin lesions, breathing problems, bloody noses. But we didn't correlate it to the job site," says Scott, who was also struck with nosebleeds he couldn't explain. Three years later, he suffers from "lesions on my stomach and groin and tumors in my abdomen that had to be surgically removed."
An 18-year-old employee, Rodolfo Ramos, the smallest guy on the crew, was elected to lay pipe down in the trenches.
"He's blind now," says Reggie Clyne, an attorney representing Wallace, Dixon, Scott, and 29 others in a suit against the property owner. "He was diving in the muck, swimming in it, basically."
The suit names Canadian developer Lauris Boulanger and the Dania Distribution Centre he built. "We know for a fact that they knew there were environmental problems on that site," Clyne alleges. "And that they did their construction in such a way that it caused an entire neighborhood to get sick."
When Scott's men told him that water in the trenches was causing skin irritation, he had it tested independently. He says diesel fuel was detected. "I sent those results in a letter to the general contractor, and he got pissed off at me for putting it in writing."
Scott's still miffed that the Boulangers were often late with paychecks and that they never paid him for keeping the site watered down to keep off-site migration to a minimum. "We did it because we saw that we were dusting the people who lived around there," he says.
"The black families were complaining the whole time we were out there, but it never reached our ears," Scott continues. It wasn't until he noticed a story in the Dania Press that he discovered others were affected. He remembers the initial response from Dania Beach officials: "They just figured they were a bunch of whining blacks looking to get something for nothing. But that's not the case. Those people actually suffered."
The predominantly African-American Camp Blanding sits in a neglected industrial corner of the city, where Dania Beach Boulevard dead-ends, between Griffin and Stirling roads. Wallace thinks that's why the city ignored her concerns. She says when she finally received a letter from the city manager, she was hit with four minor code-violation citations. A clear message: "In other words, keep your black mouth shut," she says.
Former Commissioner Chunn blames Dania Beach too. "Nobody from the city went out there and talked to these people, and I think that's a shame. They never spent time with any of these people trying to find out what was going on. They were afraid to come out there afraid of getting sick."
Phone calls from New Times to Dania Beach Mayor Patricia Flury and City Manager Ivan Pato were referred to City Attorney Tom Ansbro. He recalls citizens contacting their office two years ago.
"Both the city manager and I heard the complaint," Ansbro says. "We took it seriously. We said, 'We understand, and we'll look into it. '" Dania Beach officials couldn't investigate personally, he says, because "we have no one on staff at all that was equipped to deal with that issue."
Dixon ridicules the response. "You can't come out and show concern for the people who vote for you?" she says incredulously.
Ansbro contacted the Broward County Environmental Protection Agency. "They investigate things that make people sick, things that are toxic," he says. "So we turned it over to the people who were best-equipped to deal with it."
Norman Arizola, project manager with Broward's EPA, says his agency was first made aware of health problems in September 2004. "We held a meeting at a church near where all these people lived, by the train tracks," he recalls. By then, he notes, the warehouses were already built. One of the first questions the residents asked was if the warehouse complex owner was going to be fined.
No, they were told. "The staff made the decision that it was not going to serve any purpose," Arizola explains. Instead of penalizing Boulanger, Broward County made the firm pay for soil and groundwater testing at the site.
Scott scoffs at that arrangement. "You're not going get the truth from their own people being paid to test the area."
"That's the way it's done," Arizola counters. "That's where the money has to come from. We just followed the normal procedure." He admits allowing the developer to do its own monitoring isn't without drawbacks but adds: "They're reputable businesses, we hope. "
Arizola acknowledges that the area was, in fact, a dumpsite during the 1970s. Some testing was done there before construction, he says. "But they were sketchy reports, which made it almost impossible to make a determination as to what happened in the past."
Boulanger is now required to submit quarterly reports to the EPA from sampling done on-site. Monitoring has revealed "petroleum-type contamination," Arizola says, though "the levels are so low, probably because everything's been removed." Records show that soil was trucked into that site, "which means a lot of fill went out" after construction began.
Attorney Clyne believes trucks full of contaminated soil passed through the neighborhood. Camp Blanding Day Care, where kids tussled a half-block from the dirt and dust, shut down after last fall's hurricane. But news of children stricken with respiratory ailments spread.
In the meantime, Clyne is ready to call in another law firm to help him out. "It's too big for us," he says. His clients are culled primarily from the first two rows of homes abutting the site, but more are coming forward.
Wallace says she, her 3-year-old granddaughter, and her two sons all have asthma. "None of us were born with it," she adds. Earlier this month, she spent a night at Broward General with her 6-year-old son, who was having a severe attack. Her two daughters have bronchitis.
"All the mucus," she says solemnly. "You can't get past the mucus."
Dixon still lives across the street from the land, and her family is still plagued with problems.
The warehouse complex is crisp, clean, and new, with an eight-foot concrete wall surrounding it. Conduit and light fixtures are still being installed, but tenants are few.
Maurice Sarfati, a manager at We Bronze Inc., wasn't aware of the illnesses and the lawsuit. "That's news to us over here," he said. Open since October, he's noticed nothing out of the ordinary. "Except for the occasional flu and cold, and I don't think it's related."
According to Chunn, the city and the county should have known the area was a long-standing dump and was likely polluted. Arizola says the developer was notified during construction about problems but didn't act on the information.
"That's the part we missed," he says, "because nobody told us they had discovered contamination. Technically, they were to notify us immediately, which they never did. So we didn't find out until the site was completely built."
As for what was buried in the dirt and by whom, Arizola says: "There's no way to know."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.