Are Irma cleanup efforts making South Florida residents sick?

People concerned about environmental effects as boats are destroyed

By Amy Viteri - Investigative Reporter

TAVERNIER, Fla. - Residents rebuilding after Hurricane Irma expressed health concerns related to cleanup efforts, including crushing boats in their neighborhoods.

Several residents in Tavernier who live near Harry Harris Park, have reported getting sick as crews destroyed damaged, unclaimed boats just feet from their homes. 

"Crushing them and exposing us to that. That's wrong to me," resident Carly Squire said. 

"It's a huge concern. I think given everything that people have gone through after the storm,” resident Elizabeth Brown said.

In December, residents began hearing that Harry Harris Park, which is still closed to the public, would be used as a disaster debris management site by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and other agencies. The park would be used as a holding area for damaged boats, and possibly as a site for crushing boats. 

"I was outside in my yard and the first boat came in and I said, 'Oh, so it's no longer a possibility, they're doing this,'" Squire said. 

Local 10 News obtained cellphone video of crews destroying boats. Video shows the dust and particles carried by the ocean breeze. 

Dr. Marcus Cooke, a professor of environmental toxicology at Florida International University, said recent studies indicate fiberglass is likely not a carcinogen, but it is also not something a person should be breathing.

"Fiberglass is known to be an irritant," Cooke said. "It can irritate the eyes and throat as well. And the higher the exposure, the worse the irritation you can get."

Elizabeth Brown described one scary experience after a day on which crews crushed boats.

"Everything was fine when we went to bed and, a couple hours later, my son woke up and wasn't able to breathe," Brown said. 

Her 21-month old son, Patrick, had been outside all day with her husband as crews worked behind their home in January. 

"We do have small children and this is literally our back yard and we have a constant ocean breeze that comes through," Brown said.

Elizabeth Brown said her husband and her 21-month-old son had to go to a hospital when they had trouble breathing.

That night, she said, both her son and husband had to go to a hospital when they had trouble breathing.  

"My baby that night was so sick that he ended up in the ER just with respiratory issues," she said.

A representative for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, one of the agencies overseeing the project, said in an email that crews follow a safety plan for hazardous materials, including "contained working surfaces" and "protective berm." 

"We were told they were going to build a barrier," resident Carly Squire said. "And that's not happening. They're doing it out in the open."

Local 10 learned Monroe County officials also had concerns. The subject line on an email exchange with the FWC on Jan. 8 is: "Why are there no vertical barriers in HH Park for boat crushing?"

An FWC representative told Local 10 the commission received "no evidence indicating airborne particles ... are causing a threat to public health and safety." 

When Local 10 asked the Department of Environmental Protection about any testing done at the site, it sent an emailed response that said, "No dust issues were identified during the inspection ... no site specific air monitoring has been determined to be warranted at this time."

Cellphone video showed workers crushing boats at Harry Harris Park.

"I can't see dust not being released when fiberglass boats are being crushed," Cooke said. "What else is being released is open to speculation. It would be better to minimize exposure, ultimately." 

"It's taking advantage of the residents who are otherwise occupied trying to rebuild their homes and their lives," Squire said. 

The FWC could not provide a timeline for when it will complete work at Harry Harris Park. County officials said the commission told them it hopes to wrap up at that location by the end of February. 

FWC spokesperson Rob Klepper also said in an emailed statement:  

"Safety of the response crews and the public is the top priority while destroying vessels in staging areas. Crews use appropriate personal protective equipment and follow proper procedures for workplace safety."

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