Poisoned: Asthma, Cancer, and Death Prowl a Miami Neighborhood | Feature | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


Poisoned: Asthma, Cancer, and Death Prowl a Miami Neighborhood

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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.

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Jon Tayler
Contact: Jon Tayler

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