After decades of delays, an estimated 100,000 gallons of oil and other pollutants continue to slosh around under the ground in southern Broward County, one of the nation’s worst hazardous waste dumps.
The mess, created by a used-oil refinery and oil storage center in the 1950s and ’60s, lies not far from drinking wells used in Hollywood and Hallandale Beach. It was discovered 40 years ago when oil started to bubble up in a parking lot.
Now the owner of the property, who bought it unwittingly, thinks the time has come to clean up the contamination. A judge agrees, but the work still might not begin for years.
U.S District Judge Beth Bloom last week ordered the federal government to establish a timetable by Aug. 22 — and yearly after that.
“We want EPA to come in and clean this property once and for all, and really clean it. We want the damn thing cleaned, and we want the people responsible to pay for it,” said Franklin L. Zemel, a Fort Lauderdale-based attorney for Dr. Robert Cornfeld, an 88-year-old retired orthodontist who now owns the land.
“I recognize they would all like this to continue to drag out for decades longer, but my client won’t be around for that. We have a contaminated property. He can’t develop it. He can’t sell it. He can’t do anything with it,” Zemel said.
How it got this way
Petroleum Products Corp. once operated a used-oil refinery and oil-storage center at the site, at 3130 SW 19th St. in Pembroke Park. Tankers dumped off used oil for processing and burial from a handful of clients, including the U.S. Navy, Greyhound, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, the Coast Guard and Sears’ auto centers. But the dumping pits had not been lined to contain the oil, and it spread.
“Nobody knew any better,” Zemel said.
After the oil refinery was gone, Cornfeld bought about half of the 11-acre land in 1971. By then, the refinery had been replaced with blacktop and warehouses. Cornfeld bought the rest of the land in 1978.
That was one year before Cornfeld spotted oil in the parking lot and called the EPA.
The EPA determined in 1980 that the groundwater and soil were contaminated. The site made the federal government’s super fund list in 1987 as one of the nation’s worst hazardous waste dumps.
Although the former dumping pit was about 2 acres, the pollutants eventually spread out by 7 acres, Pembroke Park officials said.
“Dr. Cornfeld has been practically begging EPA to force those responsible to clean his property, including if necessary, to destroy his own buildings, excavate the contaminated soils, haul it all away and charge those responsible for the contamination for the costs of the remedy, the rebuild and related economic losses,” according to court documents filed by Zemel. “Those responsible for these costs are the ones who have benefited from three decades of delay.”
Zemel said he brought everyone back in court last week to “send up a flare and say to the court: ‘Hey, this has been drifting for almost 30 years. This was a very, very long time ago.’ ”
Nothing has worked
Everyone agrees the EPA has been trying to clean up the problem. It put in a system in 1994 to pump out the oil, but it failed and was taken out in 1998, Zemel said. A new technology called a “bioslurper” went underground from 2002-2012 and pulled out 43,000 gallons of waste, according to the federal government. The machines were considered too expensive for the results it was getting so they shut it down:
“They finally threw up their hands and said this doesn’t work,” Zemel said. “They’ve done absolutely nothing since 2012. They pulled the equipment and shut it off.”
A few years ago, the agency proposed tearing down the warehouses to allow for “a more efficient, quicker, thorough and permanent cleanup,” according to a draft of the agency’s report.
Without taking down the warehouses “you may have a larger groundwater problem going forward,” said Rudolph Tanasijevich, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice representing the EPA.
Since the 1990s, Tanasijevich said, “everybody has been kind of fully aware of the issues that we’re working on and literally everybody kind of just brainstorming trying to figure out what’s the best way to reach a solution that we’re not going to end up in litigation.”
Zemel said a number of issues remain:
— Who will pay Cornfeld for lost income if the warehouses are knocked down? Zemel said about 50 businesses operate in the warehouses, ranging from storage to manufacturing to a gun range. The 400 tenants — mostly storage customers — pay $1 million in rent each year. The cleanup is estimated to take five to 12 years to complete.
— If the warehouses are knocked down, who pays for the building loss? Zemel said the 200,000 square feet of space could cost $20 million to rebuild, based on U.S. Army of Engineers estimates.
— Who will pay for the cleanup? Zemel said some EPA estimates carry a $50 million price tag, not including the millions spent so far on cleanup efforts. Zemel said an estimated 3,000 truckloads would be needed to remove contaminated soil and bring in clean fill.
Tanasijevich told the judge that the situation is “actually unprecedented in EPA’s history in terms of the type of work that we think we need to do to address the source,” according to court transcripts.
Judge Bloom said she would now take an “active oversight role” since decades have gone by since the problem was discovered.
EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young said a feasibility study will be made public by early June. After that, a proposed cleanup plan should be ready by September, with a decision to move forward by the third quarter of 2020, she said.
“Where we are now is really trying to figure out if we can all work together and find a solution that can make sense,” said John Barkett, an attorney for the group of “potentially responsible parties” — 32 parties whose oil was dumped at the site, as well as additional government agencies such as the city of Miami and Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
“And I don’t know how that’s going to turn out yet, quite honestly,” Barkett told the judge.
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