SICKNESS IN THE SOIL: Business joins lawsuit over neighborhood contamination

FORT LAUDERDALE – Gloria Royster says she probably would not have bought the Downbeat Club in the city’s Durrs section if she had known about the toxic pile of ash behind it.
BY ELGIN JONES
writing for The Broward Times

She has taken on additional costs to provide bottled water for patrons, fearing that city tap water at the night club may be tainted.

A health study earlier this year concluded that there are higher than normal levels of cancer-causing substances in the soil around the club, including lead, arsenic and dioxin.

“I want to see that this problem is corrected because I could be out of business,” said Royster, one of 115 people, most of them residents, who have filed a lawsuit against the city for damages stemming from an incinerator in the area that they say caused the problem.

“It’s long overdue,” said Royster, 50, who bought the night club at 623 N.W. 15th Way in 2003.

Coral Gables attorney Reginald J. Clyne and Louise Caro, an environmental attorney with Legal Aid Service of Broward County, Inc. filed the lawsuit on Nov. 9.

“Right now, the number is at 115 people, but it could eventually include as many as 20,000,” Clyne said.

“It’s hard to estimate, but damages could amount to $25 to $40 million depending on the final number of plaintiffs, but we are not placing any amounts on the case.”

City officials say they have yet to be served in the case, and declined to comment on it.

“I have seen an unsigned version of what purports to be the lawsuit in question that was provided to me by a reporter,” Fort Lauderdale City Attorney Harry Stewart said. “I do not believe that the city has been served with the suit, at least it has not reached my office.”

The complaint spans 38 pages of allegations related to toxins that have been confirmed in the Durrs neighborhood.

Durrs is a predominantly black, lower-income community that is a mix of single-family homes and subsidized rental complexes. The lawsuit seeks testing, health monitoring, compensation, damages and attorneys fees for the plaintiffs.

The city operated a garbage incinerator in the Durrs neighborhood, located north of Sistrunk Boulevard and east of Interstate 95, from the late 1920s to the mid-1950s.

The incinerator churned out ash from burned garbage and other materials, and spewed it into the air during that period, sometimes for 24 hours a day. Residents who lived there can recall how the ash fell like snow, covering their yards, clothing, homes and cars.

Many of those same residents believe that the ash is the source of the higher-than-normal rates of cancer, and other ailments afflicting them.

Royster, the Downbeat Club owner, grew up in the Durrs area, attended Lincoln Park Elementary, and still has a brother and other relatives who live in the area. Most, if not all of them, are suffering from various cancers and other conditions that are not common in her family, she said.

“Nobody cares, they simply don’t care,” she said. “Maybe this is the key. My brother has all of these ailments, like asthma and other things, and I just think it’s a shame we were not told anything about the dangers here.”

The lawsuit places direct blame on the old city-owned incinerator and the ash it spewed for decades. It also states the city knew of the dangers the contaminants presented, but took no action to address the issues.

In addition to Royster, the plaintiffs include current and former residents, people who attended Lincoln Park Elementary – a school once located in the neighborhood – property owners, users of Lincoln Park, and individuals who may have been otherwise exposed to the area’s toxins.

City officials stand by their position that there are no definitive studies that link residents’ ailments to the operation of the incinerator or toxins in the area.

The case stems from the results of a joint study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the Florida Department of Health. The study was released on March 27.

In the study, health officials warned area residents not to eat certain vegetables grown in their gardens, to thoroughly wash other vegetables, to dust themselves off before entering their houses, and to refrain from breathing dust from the area because of toxins in the soil.

The agencies’ warnings and precautionary steps were never distributed to residents.

Many say they first learned about the warnings in an April 27 story in the Broward Times.

During an Aug. 7 community meeting on the issue, city representatives and health officials acknowledged they had not disseminated the information, and had not settled on any concrete solutions to the problems.

“I want to apologize,” said Craig C. Clevenger, a city environmental consultant, at that meeting. “I don't have an answer to your questions.”

Fort Lauderdale city commissioners did not attend the meeting. Clevenger and Albert Carbon, the city’s public works director, said at that meeting that the city had an action plan that would be made public.
Area residents such as Walter “Mickey” Hinton, the Durrs Homeowners Association president, say they have yet to see any such plan.

Hinton said his wife and daughters are all suffering from various health ailments, including cancer. Hinton and his wife have lived in the Durrs neighborhood since the 1960s and are among the increasing number of people who have signed on as plaintiffs to the lawsuit.

During the Aug. 7 community meeting, city officials proposed to conduct further tests, and to fence off and clean up areas where elevated levels of toxins have been found.

When a reporter visited the area earlier this week, however, he noticed that fences had been torn down at some of those locations, and that no cleanup had begun.

Mayor Jim Naugle said that before any major efforts are undertaken in the area, the first step is to determine who is responsible for the costs. That’s a step that took place before the cleanup of the larger Wingate landfill nearby.

“We would have to identify a funding source,” Naugle said. “The cleanup of the Wingate site was funded by the PRPs [potential responsible parties], for something that happened over 50 years ago. The federal government was one of major users of the Lincoln Park incinerator, so I would think they bear some responsibilities.”

Caro and Legal Aid have also battled Fort Lauderdale over the cleanup of the toxic Wingate landfill. Legal Aid wanted the toxins removed from the Wingate site, instead of the plastic cap that was placed over the contaminants.

Legal Aid also recently settled a federal lawsuit against the city over an intensive code enforcement program that targeted three predominantly black neighborhoods, including Durrs.

Litigation in the current toxins case is expected to be costly.

Stewart would not say whether Fort Lauderdale officials have hired an outside law firm to represent the city in the case, but he suggested that the defense would be vigorous.

“The city will use both internal and external resources to defend this lawsuit,” Stewart said. “The city will respond to the specific allegations in the complaint in accordance with the rules governing litigation.”


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