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Miami Herald, July 29, 2001


BY Richard Brand

At the former site of Bataco Industries, where miles and miles of battlefield-grade barbed wire were strung for the U.S. Army until 1988, a massive, rusted warehouse is all that stands.

For 13 years, this five-acre property in the heart of Liberty City was abandoned, and the ground underneath was left soaked by oil and cancer-causing chemicals. Over those years, the corrugated metal walls have shielded a den of drug dealing, prostitution and the dumping of thousands of tires, dozens of old couches, and at least two dead bodies. A block away from Miami Northwestern Senior High School.

Bataco Industries is one of thousands of abandoned and polluted properties in Miami-Dade County that present a major environmental and health risk for the poor and minority communities in which they are disproportionately located.

And they are a national problem as well: 425,000 properties are mothballed in cities across the country, occupying up to 10 percent of urban land area, federal figures show.

The government calls these properties brownfields, because their pollution stands in the way of their redevelopment. Builders who worry about federal laws that can hold current property owners responsible for cleaning up pollution by a past tenant avoid brownfield properties and choose to build instead on pristine land in remote places.

These liability concerns persist, even as government agencies tout brownfields as the last emerging market in real estate, an obvious way to restore communities, curb sprawl and make a buck.

Which is exactly what real estate investor Francisco Martinez had in mind when he bought an unlikely property from the county: the former site of Bataco Industries, the decrepit Liberty City barbed-wire factory.

Why buy when officials estimated a $400,000 cleanup bill?

Because Mother Nature did Martinez, the county and neighboring residents a huge, nearly miraculous favor.

The pollution is gone, washed away over a decade by the natural cleansing process of an underground river. In a letter dated June 12, the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management notified Martinez that contaminants in the ground no longer exceeded legal levels.

``I knew that it was abandoned for all those years, and I knew that the contamination would be taken away . . . by the Little River,'' Martinez said.

Martinez, a Barcelona native who starred in at least 40 spaghetti westerns as ``Martin Gilbert'' during the 1960s and '70s, can now move forward with his plan to convert the warehouse into a $5 million, 50,000-square-foot movie studio.

Martinez, who bought the property from the county in February for $99,600, says he has already spent $75,000 to clean the site. Gone are the piles of garbage and tires.

``Now that it's clean, everybody wants to buy it,'' Martinez boasted. ``But I want it for me.''

Yet Martinez's experience is far from typical.

Government agencies have been creating incentives such as tax breaks and low-interest loans for developers to clean up the thousands of other contaminated sites in Miami-Dade County. But they have their work cut out for them. It's $10,000 to test a single property for pollution. Cleanup can take years, and the cost can often exceed the value of the land itself, especially in economically depressed neighborhoods.

``This is a problem for poor people,'' said Louis Sparkspresident of the Stephen Manor Homeowners Association in Liberty City. ``It has a terrible effect on their morale, because they know that they are living in a place that can be harmful to their health.''

Indeed, there are so many polluted sites in poor neighborhoods that the County Commission has designated entire swaths of Model City, Allapattah, Overtown, Liberty City, Opa-locka and Carol City as ``brownfield areas.'' That designation will make it easier for those contaminated sites to get local and federal redevelopment tax incentives.

In Miami-Dade County, there are 2,035 potential brownfield sites, but because the cleanup process is so slow, only a handful have been confirmed as being contaminated. Even fewer are getting government money for cleanup, according to Doug Yoder, DERM's assistant director.

One is the 30-acre Poinciana Industrial Center in Liberty City, a collection of old factories that the county just finished cleaning of oil, asbestos, and metal contamination in the soil and groundwater -- at a cost of $2 million, most of that in state and federal dollars. The county is seeking businesses to use the area.

Residents say it's hard to live near polluted sites.

``Everything around here is auto body shops, welders. There are so few parks. It's dirty,'' said Leila Saint Jeana mother of two who lives on the eastern edge of Liberty City. ``You can't sell your house for any money, because nobody wants to live here.''

Most developers and policymakers say the nationwide brownfield problem is a creature birthed from a single federal law: the 1980 Superfund statute that says any party even remotely connected to ownership of a polluted property can be liable for cleanup, even if the pollution was caused by a previous owner.

That law was written by a U.S. Congress tired of seeing taxpayers burdened with the cost to clean industrial messes, and it was passed with much fanfare and popular support. But Superfund had unintended consequences: developers steered clear of properties that were polluted -- or even possibly contaminated.

``Funding to clean brownfield sites dried up,'' said Michael Goldstein, chairman of Miami-Dade's Brownfields Oversight Committee. ``Across the country, the private sector abandoned thousands of brownfieldlike sites.''

Yet were it not for the liability hazards they pose, brownfields would be great properties, developers say. They can tap existing roads, sewers, water pipes and electric lines as well as a large urban workforce.

But even with these advantages, many developers won't touch brownfields. ``The brownfield programs don't make the contamination go away. Somebody still needs to pay for cleanup,'' Goldstein said. ``Developers don't want to be saddled with that responsibility. And that hurts poor communities the most.''