University of Miami Researchers Contaminated Rare Pine Rockland, DOJ Lawsuit Alleges

Activists protest outside University of Miami’s main entrance off U.S.1 on Feb. 27. (Photo by Al Sunshine/Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition.)

By Francisco Alvarado
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Critics of a plan to develop rare forest land in southwest Miami-Dade County say that radioactive materials dumped there by University of Miami researchers during the Cold War show that the university was a poor steward of such sensitive land and should never have been allowed to sell that land last year.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice sued UM under the federal Superfund law, accusing the school of releasing hazardous waste into the ground during a 20-year period when school scientists conducted medical and biological experiments at its old south campus. The university quickly settled the lawsuit. The 140-acre property, located near Zoo Miami, is predominantly pine rockland, a disappearing native habitat home to more than a dozen endangered species, including the bald eagle and indigo snake, the Florida bonneted bat, which was given federal protection last year, and two rare butterflies expected to be protected this summer.

Last July, UM announced the sale of 88 acres of the land for $22 million to Palm Beach Gardens-based Ram Realty, which plans to build a retail and residential project called Coral Reef Commons. To secure a zoning change, Miami-Dade County, UM and Ram agreed to set aside 40 acres for a preserve.

Since then, activists and environmentalists have waged a public campaign to stop the new development. While the lawsuit and settlement didn’t generate media coverage, opponents are now bringing up the settlement as proof UM is a negligent custodian of environmentally sensitive land.

“The University of Miami took this property and pretty much trashed it,” said Grant Stern, a Miami mortgage broker and anti-Walmart activist. “The public should be made aware that the university was producing hazardous waste out there.”

A UM spokeswoman said the school declines to comment for this story, as did representatives from Ram Realty.

Pine rockland, which is found only in the Sunshine State and the Bahamas, once blanketed 185,000 acres between Florida City and Miami. Today, only 2,900 acres remain outside of Everglades National Park, and in 1984, Miami-Dade County passed a law requiring preservation of at least 80 percent of rockland if an owner is to build on such land.

In 1946, the federal government leased 140 acres that were once part of the Richmond Naval Air Station to UM for use as a south campus that provided housing, dining, recreational facilities and classrooms to 1,100 students, mostly freshmen.

Two years later, after many students complained that the south campus was too remote, UM converted the sprawling site into a research facility. Experiments ran the gamut, from development for the packaging of frozen TV dinners to the first scientific tests that produced cancer cells in embryonic chicks.

A half-dozen buildings totaling about 70,000 square feet housed malaria research, studies on food and sound, and provided storage. The school also built primate cages on nine acres. Between the early 1980s and 1990s, the federal government donated the property to UM.

According to the 2006 DOJ lawsuit, one of the buildings housed a laboratory where experiments using radioactive materials were conducted from 1946 to 1966. Supporting court documents filed with the lawsuit state that researchers “disposed of radionuclides by burying them in trenches” and similarly “disposed of radiated animal carcasses, derived from radiological experiments.” The “hazardous substances,” including carbon, cesium, cobalt, zinc, tritium, iron, iodine, chromium and sulfur, were “pumped, poured, emitted, discharged, dumped, or injected, or otherwise spilled, leaked, escaped or leached, into surface water, groundwater, drinking water supply, land surface or subsurface strata, or ambient air,” according to the court documents.

In addition, a radiological survey in 1985 found several hazardous substances — cesium-137, cobalt-60, Hydrogen-3 and carbon-14 — at the site. A 2001 geophysical survey found metallic material in 12 trenches, according to the lawsuit.

“The government seeks compensation from the university, which now owns the property in question, under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund law,” the complaint states.

DOJ claimed the Army Corps of Engineers spent $763,336 cleaning up the hazardous waste. On Oct. 6, 2006, UM settled with the government by agreeing to pay $393,473 without admitting any liability. The only media coverage came from a single article by the journal Inside Higher Ed.

Dennis Ollie, president of the Miami chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, said the lawsuit shows UM had a reckless disregard for protecting the pine rockland.

“One would think UM would have been more responsible with land that was essentially given to them by the federal government,” Ollie said. “The lawsuit shows what a bad steward the school has been.”

In early March, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he would ask the state to help the county buy the 88 acres from Ram to conserve the site, but the company’s principal, Peter Cummings, told the Miami Herald he has no intention of selling.

Editor’s note: The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting has a partnership with the University of Miami.