The Killing Fields
"Hold on a minute, hold on a minute," Leola McCoy says. The high-school auditorium falls silent. Something's wrong. The people in the room, approximately 40 of them, can detect annoyance in McCoy's soft but shrill voice. They watch as she marches to the front of the room, arms swinging, and they listen.
McCoy breaks the uncomfortable silence by asking two attorneys who stand facing the crowd just what they mean by repeating a series of questions on a thirteen-page questionnaire the people hold in their hands. It is unclear, she points out, whether a person is supposed to fill out the first set of questions, the second set, or both. The lawyers quietly explain to her that it can vary, depending on who's holding the pen.
"Aw, that's confusing," she says with a sigh. She turns to the crowd, residents of northwest Fort Lauderdale who sit sprinkled throughout Dillard High School's auditorium on this Thursday night in December. "How many people in this room are confused?"
Most everyone raises a hand.
"Now, see," she goes on, returning her attention to the attorneys, a fist planted firmly on her hip. "Y'all are confusing my people, and I will not have my people confused. I will not have my people confused."
The lawyers, a partner and an associate with the Stuart-based firm of Gary, Williams, Parenti, Finney, Lewis, McManus, Watson & Sperando, are stunned into silence. They work for and with McCoy, not against her. Having sized up the situation, McCoy offers her own solution: She schedules a questionnaire workshop for Saturday morning at the nearby Bass Park Recreation Center, calling on one of her two daughters and several neighbors to commit to being there despite the short notice. Then she urges those in attendance this evening to come together one more time -- come together in an effort to figure out and work through the difficulties that plague their community.
That has not been easy. McCoy, a trim 59-year-old grandmother of ten who is just starting to go gray, has spent much of the past thirteen years reading about her neighborhood's toxic troubles, ranting and raving about what she considers environmental racism, and shaking up stubborn bureaucrats all the way from Fort Lauderdale to Washington, D.C.
"At every turn I have to prove, prove, prove, justify, justify," she charges, trying not to sound too jaded. "My performance has to be extraordinary in order to keep my folk going. Every meeting we have -- and we meet twice a month -- my agenda has to be full. It has to be interesting, it has to be informative, it has to be right on target. This thing has totally consumed me in terms of the time that I spend trying to get the message out."
Her message, if true, is frightening -- that the toxic waste dump located smack-dab in the middle of a residential area in northwest Fort Lauderdale is responsible for numerous deaths and illnesses, and that city, county, and state officials have no plans to clean it up, only to cover it and move on.
McCoy shouts the news to as many ears as she can reach, as often as she can. And while her straightforward, forceful manner hasn't won her many friends, it certainly gets people's attention. For example, as a result of McCoy's relentless pestering, D.C.-based officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), leery of being accused of being party to environmental racism, agreed to reconsider one of their agency's decisions this past summer -- a practice virtually unheard of before now.
"She's absolutely critical from a historical perspective and in organizing the community," notes Sharon Bourassa, director of litigation with Legal Aid Service of Broward County, which represents the Wingate-area neighborhoods in their fight for information and a thorough cleanup. "Her knowledge of the whole area, of the laws, is just incredible. This is her mission in life. She calls me on the weekends at two o'clock in the morning. This woman eats, drinks, and -- I swear -- poops this story."
Specifically, "this story" means the Wingate Road Municipal Incinerator and Landfill, located on Northwest 31st Avenue between Northwest 19th Street and Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Owned by the City of Fort Lauderdale and administered by its utilities department, the 61-acre Wingate Road dump opened in 1954.
At first the site had only one incinerator. A second, supposedly cleaner incinerator was added in 1966, and a cleaning process whereby smoke was pushed through water to cool and clean it was retrofitted to the old incinerator in 1975. Still, in 1978 the city had to close the dumpsite because smoke from the incinerators wasn't clean enough to meet new federal emissions standards.
For years after the incinerators were shut down, the city studied the site and ultimately decided to cap it. However, before the city could initiate what it termed remediation of the dump, the EPA in 1989 intervened and declared the whole area -- a 40-acre landfill, two incinerators, and an ash-cooling pond dubbed Lake Stupid -- a Superfund site, one of the most contaminated and toxic spots in the nation. (Off-site, but connected to Lake Stupid by a city-dredged canal, lies Rock Pit Lake. Overflow from contaminated Lake Stupid found its way into this neighborhood lake, lined on three sides by homes. Because Rock Pit Lake is not part of the Superfund site, it has not been targeted for cleanup.)
For 24 years the city burned just about everything brought to the site by more than 1400 businesses and agencies. Last year the city identified 35 of the biggest polluters from among those 1400, although only approximately 20 of them have agreed to help pay for the site's cleanup. Some of the companies that used the dump include the Tribune Co. (which owns the Sun-Sentinel), Waste Management of Florida, Florida Power and Light, the North Broward Hospital District (which oversees Broward General Medical Center), Broward County in its role as the authority over Port Everglades, six major petroleum companies, and the City of Fort Lauderdale itself. What wasn't burned in the incinerators was buried in the landfill a few feet away. And the sludge at the bottom of Lake Stupid, laden with ash and heavy metals, was dredged and piled into the landfill.
By the time the Wingate dump was declared a Superfund site, however, McCoy was already buzzing around the issue, asking questions, attending meetings, and trying to determine what it meant to live close to a Superfund site. It wasn't until 1994 that she began to understand. That's when she learned that the Florida Department of Health had released a preliminary study that indicated that people who lived within a mile of the dump had a higher incidence of five kinds of cancer -- breast, prostate, pancreatic, kidney, and eye cancer -- than people who didn't. The state study doesn't name causes for the cancers.
McCoy, however, considered the study proof that the dump and the incinerators had harmed people. To her mind, no longer could all the cancer-related deaths in her neighborhood, one of which she claims occurred in every third home, be passed off as mere coincidence. She told anyone who would listen about soil and ground water studies done by the EPA, the Florida Department of Health, and city consultants: Based on samplings of soil and lake sediment both on- and off-site at Wingate, these studies revealed excessive amounts of carcinogens such as lead, arsenic, beryllium, and dioxin, the latter a petroleum-derived herbicide. And the more she talked to people about how they fed their gardens and lawns with water from Rock Pit Lake, the more convinced she became that the sooty ash that rained over her neighborhood from 1954 to 1978 had made people sick and in many cases had killed them.
"Just being practical and being an average-thinking human being, we know cancer and other illnesses have impacted this community in greater numbers than [the health department numbers would indicate]," McCoy says. "What about the birth defects, the asthma, the lead [poisonings], the learning disabilities? The health of this community and the future survival of this community are dependent on cleanup. The same issues that are here now will be here 30 years from now if we don't clean that up, and that is unacceptable."
This past summer McCoy's insistence that the site was more harmful than studies showed induced EPA officials to agree to review their decision to cap it. After a walk-through of the site, meetings with McCoy and Wingate-area neighbors, and a review of documents, the EPA decided not to change its original plan for capping the site, which is currently underway.
McCoy, at a slender five-foot-nothing, stands tall as the leader in her neighborhood's fight against what it sees as blatant environmental racism. Nothing else, McCoy and her supporters contend, explains why no one bothered to tell them about the possible harmful effects of soot and ash from the Wingate Road incinerators. Nothing else explains why no one bothered to tell them not to use water from Rock Pit Lake.
Beside McCoy stand dozens of residents who have lost loved ones to types of cancer never before seen in their families. Behind her stand several lawyers and environmentalists whom she's been able to convince to work on behalf of the 45,000 mostly black residents who live within a mile of the Wingate Road dump.
Missing, however, are many powerful voices. Only one elected official, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Miramar), has publicly supported McCoy's fight for a total cleanup of the Wingate site. Other local officials -- more than a half-dozen black men and women elected to political office from Broward County, as well as a smattering of white politicians who represent Fort Lauderdale -- have been conspicuously silent when it comes to speaking out about the dump.
"Where are the blacks?" Bourassa asks rhetorically, dropping her hands on her desk in frustration. "All the black elected officials -- there's one on the school board and [one on] the county commission -- where the hell are they on this issue? You'd think these black leaders would be screaming about this. This is bad stuff."
McCoy and her husband, Douglas "Mack" McCoy, bought their house on Northwest 24th Terrace in 1961. A young couple with three small children, the McCoys wanted their kids to have a yard and a dog and an address they could call their own. And in Fort Lauderdale in the early Sixties, the northwest area near the dump was about the only place blacks could buy property. So when ash from the Wingate incinerators billowed overhead, Leola McCoy simply closed her windows and kept her children indoors, putting up with the inconvenience because at least they had their own home. In the morning Mack and hundreds of his neighbors hosed the sooty mess off their cars and headed to work.
"They closed it down, but the smell was still there," says Curtis Brown, a 43-year-old mother of three who has had both breasts removed because of cancer. She has lived near Wingate all her life. "It was like food that was sour, a real pungent smell, constant."
While residents who raised their families beside the dump note that the ash was unpleasant, they never guessed they might die from it. That didn't occur to them until the state published its 1994 health study and McCoy started calling friends and neighbors to meetings in her living room to talk about it.
"I experienced the burning, the smoke, the soot, the icky stuff," McCoy remembers, crinkling her nose. "My daughter [Verenda] had allergies all her life, skin rash, things like that. The doctors didn't know what it was. We never suspected the incinerator."
And no one gave them reason to. Despite the fact that the city knew that its incinerators' emissions did not meet federal air-quality guidelines, it never informed the community that the air might have been harmful. "Over the last five or six years, we could have done a better job of community outreach," Greg Kisela, director of public services for the City of Fort Lauderdale, told a roomful of 200 Wingate residents this past summer. For its part the EPA met federal guidelines regarding the notification of people about public meetings to discuss the dump's impact on their health and to determine what to do about cleaning it up. Notices advertising public meetings were posted in the Sun-Sentinel and other local newspapers between 1994 and 1996, yet few people attended the meetings. According to Kisela, "The EPA used outmoded methods, and they didn't work."
More than a dozen people who live along the banks of Rock Pit Lake have commented in interviews that they have never been contacted by representatives of local, state, or federal governments about the possible harmful effects of the Wingate dump. No one in authority ever told them about the federal, state, and local soil and ground water tests and their results.
"This information was out there, but because the city was a major [polluter], of course they weren't going to tell people about it," McCoy asserts. "They distanced themselves from the liability. We hoped that these people would do the right thing by us. But that's a fallacy because they never did. Why would they now?"
State studies and reports resist directly linking the operation of the incinerator to cancers and illnesses in the nearby community. Environmental toxicologists with the Florida Department of Health insist that because data concerning the smoke and soot from the incinerator were not collected while the facility was in operation, they cannot determine if the substances were toxic or not, nor can they determine whether or not the soot and smoke contributed to the higher-than-normal cancer rate in the immediate vicinity.
That's crazy to McCoy. "I see Wingate as being an issue where they [the EPA] have not internalized what this has done to us," she contends. "They don't have a clue as to the devastation this has had on this community."
Some of the people who ought to have a clue have declined to take part in this struggle, at least publicly. Several black elected officials -- school board member Miriam Oliphant, County Commissioner Sylvia Poitier, State Sen. Matthew Meadows, and state representatives Mandy Dawson-White and Josephus Eggelletion, Jr. -- did not return repeated phone calls over the past two weeks seeking comment on the Wingate issue.
According to McCoy, she has been told privately by some black leaders that she is doing a great job of bringing problems associated with the dump to the attention of the public, yet they won't explain why they won't openly support her.
"I've been asking myself, why are they so quiet?" McCoy says, narrowing her eyes. "Why are they so quiet, sitting on the sidelines, looking in? From time to time people approach me and say, 'You are doing a wonderful job,' and my response to them is, 'We're all in this together. What can you do to help us? Why aren't you here for us and for your community?'"
The one black elected official who agreed to be interviewed for this story is Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Carlton Moore, who represents the city's northwest section. On three occasions (1985, 1988, and 1994) Moore defeated McCoy when she sought a seat on the City Commission. Not surprisingly she has been critical of Moore's performance in office over the years, including what she perceives as his lack of support. He, in turn, has mixed feelings about the way in which McCoy has conducted herself regarding the Wingate site but insists he is intimately involved with the site's cleanup.
"The individual [McCoy] may not agree with my position, my opinion, my stand on this issue, but I am working on it," Moore says by way of explaining why he has not taken a more public role regarding the dump. "Of course I'm suspicious, and I wish there was some scientific way to correlate these cancers to this site, but I cannot prove it, and I don't want to delay the cleanup. I am involved by stepping back and allowing her to be a leader in the community. I wanted the community to find a leader other than me.
"I think Ms. McCoy has done an excellent job in making the community aware. She has played a valuable role in getting the community involved, but there are many elected officials working on this issue, too. Each one has tried to work with Leola and has stepped back and said, 'Hey, we can't work with this lady. Let's just work in the background and get this site cleaned up.'
"Each time you go to a meeting, Leola would attack you like a damn dog," Moore continues. "You only go to so many of those and stand in a corner and get darts thrown at you and not even be allowed to speak. So you don't work through her. You do your work through the back door."
Moore adds that McCoy's stridency has made it difficult to disagree with her in public, and that's why other black officials have maintained low profiles with regard to the Wingate site.
"Being black in America is difficult," he says, rubbing his forehead. "If you sometimes go against the flow of a particular issue, your blackness is challenged. And the greatest sin in America is to have your blackness challenged. So they stay out of the fray."
That's a cop-out, insists Suzi Ruhl, president of Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF), a Tallahassee-based, public-interest law firm that helps minority communities fight environmental racism: "My sense is that other people are using Leola's leadership as an excuse to avoid accountability for the injustices which have occurred over the past three decades on the people of Wingate. When we first started to work down there [Wingate], we talked to community leaders and elected officials, and we heard so many times, 'Oh, we tried to help, but they don't want our help,' or 'They're too radical.'
"That community has earned the right to be radical by what they've had to put up with over the past three decades. The people who walk away are as much in the wrong as anyone else."
McCoy makes no apology for scaring people away. She's tough not only with politicians but with anyone from outside the community. When technical jargon slips into conversations, with a wag of her finger she admonishes the speaker -- from low-level city employees to high-level Washington bureaucrats. When she's not invited to a government meeting, she assumes the worst and demands to know what secrets are being discussed there. When anyone challenges her authority -- authority she's assumed because no one else has wanted it -- she sets them straight: Wingate is her community, and its people are her people, and any decision made about them must first pass through her.
"Lee's very passionate about what she does," admits Leila Gray, administrator of the Fort Lauderdale Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit group charged with administering a $50,000 EPA grant to decipher its technical documents for the public. "It's like a shotgun -- you're going to hit your target, but you're also going to hit a lot of the barn. I've got to give her credit for getting the issue reopened. If it weren't for her out there with her shotgun, it wouldn't be heard. You don't get heard by knocking on doors and being polite, apparently."
Not if you are fighting for people's lives, you don't.
"None of this has been for me," claims McCoy. "It's been for my people, because I love them so much. I really love them. Because they are me. They are my reflection. All of them, you see. I'm all those things."
A hoarseness creeps into McCoy's usually clear voice, and she flashes a rare smile. Critics don't believe her when she says she's fighting for her friends and neighbors. But her friends and neighbors do.
"She just tells me, 'Bullard, this is wrong. This is wrong,'" says R.L. Bullard, who as the Wingate facility's plant supervisor oversaw about 85 workers at the Wingate dump for 28 years. Since 1968 Bullard has lived on Northwest 28th Avenue, about a mile from the site. "People would always say, 'That happened so long ago. What can we do about it now? Just forget about it.' Leola happened to be one of the few who didn't forget about it."
And she's doing everything she can to prevent others from forgetting about it. Since linking, at least in her mind, ash from the incinerator with people's ailing health in 1994, McCoy has been writing letters and requesting documents. She attends community meetings to tell people what she contends the government won't -- that the city-owned dump could be killing them.
Even after the EPA, the city, and the state agreed in May 1996 to deal with the dump by placing a $12 million, single-layer, impervious plastic cap over it, McCoy wasn't satisfied. Emphasizing that the residual contaminants in the soil and ground water would remain despite a cap, she is adamant that the site be completely excavated and the offending material -- the soil from the entire site, including Lake Stupid, plus the remainder of the closed incinerator itself -- be trucked away. But because such an endeavor would cost an estimated $1 billion or more, she realized she would have to take her fight to the next level. She called Bourassa at Legal Aid. She called Ruhl at LEAF. She worked with WTVJ-TV (Channel 6) for three months on a two-part investigative report about the Wingate dump; that series ultimately won Emmy Awards for reporter Steve Daniels and producer Scott Zamost.
"She's an encyclopedia of Wingate," Zamost says. "She was so articulate and so knowledgeable about what happened in her neighborhood that we knew we had to tell the story through her. Leola's been a one-person band. She's been talking for years about Wingate, and no one was listening."
Not that she didn't try to make people hear. She wandered through the neighborhoods with a bullhorn attached to her car to get the word out about meetings. She lost sleep reading reports and preparing for community forums. And this past December 14, a Sunday, McCoy and her daughters, Verenda Daniel and Deatra McCoy, organized a mock funeral procession that wound through the streets of Fort Lauderdale. More than 50 people participated. Still, not one black elected official was there.
"Her march is great hype and visibility, but does that do anything to bring closure to that site?" Moore asks. "I disagree with anything that delays the cleanup of that site."
The march brought closure for at least one woman.
Dorothy Jordan sits alone in her car before the funeral procession begins, clutching a few orange carnations, tears streaming from her eyes. The face of her oldest son stares back at her from a framed photograph propped against the steering wheel, the colors of his military uniform and cap faded from years of exposure to sunlight. Her son Willie Harper died in 1982 from a cancerous tumor found too late behind his sternum. Stationed in Germany at the time, he was flown directly to a hospital in Georgia, where he died after more than six months of treatment.
Jordan said goodbye fifteen years ago in a short graveside service at a military cemetery in South Carolina. A full funeral back then would have killed her, she admits today. So McCoy's mock funeral is all too real for Jordan, and she lets out her grief. "I never had a funeral for my boy," Jordan says, blotting her eyes with the back of her hand. "I knew today was going to be an emotional day for me -- I knew it. He's been dead so long. It's crazy when you think about all the young people who died, and to think those problems came from their own back yards."
The four young friends Willie played with while growing up are all dead, too, Jordan points out. All died in their twenties, at least a few from cancer, Jordan remembers.
She looks out her windshield toward the overgrown dump site. Tears well in her eyes again, and she shakes her head: "I never dreamed that something they were doing there would hurt us. Never."
Throughout the day, with McCoy encouraging television and newspaper photographers to take pictures, "mourners" hang 43 white poster-board crosses on the barbed-wire fence that surrounds the dump, each representing one of the 43 years that have passed since the incinerator first opened. Black ribbons are tied around bunches of flowers to represent the dead. The funeral procession follows a route in the shape of an "F" to symbolize the government fraud McCoy insists has occurred.
"We will not be ignored anymore," she tells the group that has gathered along the side of Northwest 31th Avenue, with Wingate's overgrown landfill looming in the background.
"No more," the crowd chants back.
McCoy clearly enjoyed the support of her neighbors that day. Everything she told them was accepted as fact. Every promise she made was believed. She was hugged and thanked for her efforts.
More often than not, however, she faces people who question her facts, who challenge her authority, and who dismiss her fervor.
And that's when McCoy does her best work.
"Please do not tell me I cannot do this," she fumes. "That is a battle cry for me. OK? Don't tell me it cannot be done, because I will research your butt right up the creek and back. I will do my homework. I will read until I cannot see to prove that, hey, there is another way -- that the methodology you're talking about certainly does not equate to what you're saying out of your mouth."
In truth McCoy has depended on few people. As a child growing up in Ocala, her life was shaky, often hungry and uncertain. She begged her mother to be allowed to move away, and as a twelve-year-old she moved to Broward County to live with cousins.
"I knew even at that young age that if I didn't leave, I would become just another wayward girl on the street," McCoy says without a hint of regret. "I knew I wanted to finish school. I knew that was important."
She finished her studies, graduating as part of the then-all-black Dillard High School's Class of 1955. She began taking college courses but was forced to drop out when she got pregnant, never earning a degree. Her family in Ocala helped care for her infant son after his birth.
Then when she was nineteen, she met Mack. He expected her to grow up and take responsibility for her young son. She blossomed under Mack's love, she says, and grew stronger and more confident as years passed.
"When my husband married me, I was just a scared kid," she recalls. "He finished giving me those qualities, that patience and that caring and that you-can-do-this kind of attitude. Mack is my source."
The couple will celebrate 40 years together this spring, surrounded by their two daughters, her son whom Mack helped raise, and Mack's two children from a previous relationship.
"If I had to worry about a man who was nagging me all the time and fussin' at me about what I do, I couldn't do this," McCoy explains, alluding to the Wingate campaign. "He's got strength, and I just pull it out of him, and he lets me. I bounce things off him, and he can tell me how the average person will respond, because he deals with the average person every day. God, if I didn't have my husband, I don't think I could do this. He's not perfect but he's good -- he's solid, he's a constant, and he loves me forever."
McCoy's husband is a quiet man, as her father was, and she admires him for that. He has been co-owner of McCoy and Morris Tonsorial Palace, a barbershop on Northwest 19th Street, for 27 years. He worked a second job as a baggage handler for Eastern Airlines before retiring in 1989, allowing his wife to concentrate on her community work in addition to her variety of secretarial and management jobs.
She suffers from myasthenia gravis, a disease that blocks brain messages, weakens skeletal muscles, and causes general fatigue. She first felt tired and noticed her speech becoming slurred in mid-1986; one year later she had surgery to have her thymus (a gland located near the breastbone) removed, and yet still ran for a city commission seat in Spring 1988. While McCoy cannot prove that the toxic elements associated with the dump have anything to do with her illness, she suspects that they do. And though she was never expected to recover fully, she has rebounded sufficiently to take on stressful and complicated projects such as Wingate.
"That was the most frightening time of my life," she remembers. "I lost the ability to enunciate, and my body was in a panic. I was in a panic. But I know now when things begin to get too stressful."
She stops at those times and loses herself in carpentry projects around her home.
"I respect my mother," says 39-year-old Verenda Daniel, McCoy's middle child. "I've always told her if she wasn't my mother, she'd still be my best friend."
Verenda and her 33-year-old sister Deatra are almost always at their mother's events, helping neighbors fill out forms, hanging posters, brainstorming with her in the middle of the night. "I can remember, even as a young child, being in a little rundown office with Magic Markers making posters, campaigning for Alcee Hastings," Daniel says, laughing at the memory. She adds that she works with her mother now not only because she is asked, but because the causes are important. "She always takes on the issues that no one [else] fights for."
In the Sixties McCoy walked door to door in black neighborhoods to register new voters; she also worked on child-welfare issues and helped then-lawyer Hastings open his first campaign office on Sistrunk Boulevard. In 1968 she was elected secretary to Broward County's Democratic Executive Committee, the first African-American to hold that position.
By the Eighties, with her children grown or in school, she started to concentrate her efforts on seeking political office. In 1984 she began doing research for her first run for city commission. That research took her to "the Wingate room" in Fort Lauderdale City Hall, she says. It wasn't actually a room but rather a corner of a room, piled high with boxes of maps, studies, and reports about the incinerator site. She spent much of the rest of the Eighties trying to get elected, learning about Wingate, and picking up projects along the way.
For instance in 1994 she stood almost alone in opposing the Regal Trace redevelopment project in a dilapidated part of northwest Fort Lauderdale. McCoy was upset by the fact that it offered only rental units and not the opportunity to own homes. The developer, Milton Jones, is black. "People would say, 'Why are you fighting this black man?'" McCoy recalls. "Because this black man does not have your interests at heart. Because if he had, he would know that black people need that ownership component, that source of pride, OK?"
She lost that fight, and the 408-unit Regal Trace apartment complex was built.
Later in 1994 she saw a TV news story about fifteen-month-old Lexen Pittman of Lauderhill, who was dying because he could not get the state to pay for badly needed organ-transplant operations. Lexen was born with short bowel syndrome and needed a new liver and bowels. McCoy took up his cause and started a trust fund, helped raise money, and found attorneys to take the little boy's case; the attorneys, in turn, sued the state for Lexen's medical expenses.
She won this one. But she lost, too. Lexen received the needed operations but died from complications soon after. "The little boy I saw on TV was just tugging at my heart," McCoy says now. "The medical staff knew that this problem was there when this child was born. They did not tell the mother until further on. They had no intentions of saving this child, which was outrageous.
"That was one of my proudest moments because that was about human life," she says, her voice decreasing to a whisper. "It's about value of human life, and that's what I'm trying to convey. I value human life, and I think all human life is very, very important. And I don't put one life above another. We're all going to leave a legacy. I do not want to leave a legacy here that says I saw the problem and did nothing, you see. I am the role model for my family, my children. My husband and I both. I cannot teach them by telling. I have to teach them by showing. I teach them by my action, you see. I have to convey to them that it is incumbent on them to value life.
"When I say 'value of life', it equates to: If I find that you are not valuing life, then I've got a problem with you, OK? So what it means is that when I look at what you're doing and see you have no value for this life, I'm pissed. OK? I'm off."
McCoy got pissed when one of her neighbors retired, filed for Social Security benefits, and was told, as McCoy describes it, "'Well, we have to give you the minimum because no one paid in for you.' She's been working for families, affluent families, all her life. So I raised holy hell, went to the [state] secretary of labor at the time, and we investigated domestic violations and common laborers and who was paying what. Those folk were mandated to pay in her Social Security. That made headlines, and it changed the way they [the state] did things.
"I feel comfortable with all of the projects I do, because I've made the determination that I'm doing the right thing. Where does it come from? It comes from truth. I know who I am, you see. No one can define me. I define who I am, and I think that's where we really miss the mark when we allow society to define us.
"I don't wait for other people to get started," she says simply. "I'm not a follower. I'm usually out there cutting down the bushes and cutting down the trees trying to make a trail. That's my nature. And that's not being arrogant. It's just that I don't wait for you to tell me what's right and wrong. I know innately, almost instinctually, what's right and wrong. We all do. I think we tend to kick back and rely on someone else to get it started, rely on someone else to do our research. And that's when we become flawed in what we believe, what we know, because we're too satisfied in allowing someone else to tell us what the truth is."
McCoy has been seeking the truth about the Wingate incinerator and dump for thirteen years now. She thinks she knows what it is -- that every level of government has cared so little for this mostly black community that they have allowed people to die. And she has called on the prominent law firm of Gary, Williams, Parenti, et al. to help her organize the community in a class-action lawsuit for damages. That's why the two lawyers were in the Dillard High School auditorium earlier this month, handing out questionnaires and inadvertently confusing people.
"They [government officials] don't expect these black people to do anything," McCoy insists. "They expect us to fuss and complain and get upset and holler, but they don't expect us to do anything. This [lawsuit] is the only thing they understand. We're just making them deal with us. They're going to have to deal with us."
Commissioner Moore thinks McCoy's tactics are all wrong, pointing out that the lawsuit is just another obstacle to eliminating the contamination at the Wingate site, which in his estimation the proposed impermeable cap would accomplish.
"I want to deal with the cap, I want to deal with the cleanup, I want to deal with the re-use," claims Moore, who has suggested building a nine-hole golf course over the capped site. "If Leola wants to concentrate her efforts and the community's efforts on the health issues, then that's great. There is nothing to prevent us from taking out that building [the incinerator] and capping that site while all those other things are being addressed. Nothing."
What Moore doesn't understand is that hundreds of residents, led by McCoy, do not want the site capped. They want the contaminated soil and the remains of the incinerator removed from their community; they want the location completely cleaned.
McCoy sees the issue in black and white. And green. "If this was a white community, do you think that stuff would be still sitting over there after all this time?" she asks rhetorically. "This is all about white people's money. And they have said they ain't gonna spend their money on those black people."
It bothers McCoy to characterize Wingate as a racial issue, but she shakes her head when asked if it could be anything else. She wishes it could be just about people. But she knows it's about black people.
"In my heart and in my head, I can't seem to shake the responsibility that this come to a closure for the best interest of the people," McCoy says. "This could impact all of South Florida and our drinking water. Everybody in South Florida should be concerned about how this is cleaned up. But I'm sure a lot of people don't care about us. In the past five years, it has become crystal clear that they [government officials] weren't going to take us seriously. It became critical what I must do to keep this on the front burner to force people to do the right thing. I can't think of anything more important.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.