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.)

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Lucy Chabot