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.