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."

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton