City of Miami’s Old Smokey victims still await reparations

Hollis Gaitor lives in a house perched just outside the gate of a long-shuttered trash incinerator on the corner of Jefferson Street and Washington Avenue in the West Grove. On a recent Wednesday, the 68-year-old lifted 70-pound weights while lying on a rusted iron bench outside. He has chronic bronchitis.

“I got to keep them lungs going,” said Gaitor, dripping in sweat. “Us kids grew up playing in the sand, eating dirt and all that. We were young, we didn’t know better.”

For half a century, toxic ash spewed out from the long-shut down Old Smokey trash incinerator, and caused a skew of health issues and property damage to those who lived in the area until its closure in 1970. The City of Miami has made multiple attempts to get out from under a potential class-action lawsuit that was filed against them in 2017 by residents of the West Grove. In October 2022, Miami-Dade County circuit court judge Barbara Areces denied the city’s motion to dismiss the case. She denied a similar motion to dismiss it this past March. 

It’s been six years since the initial lawsuit was filed, and though there’s been a wave of legal maneuvering, nothing has been done for people like Gaitor.

“I see about five people a week die here because of ailments they didn’t even know,” Gaitor said, gazing up at the sky as tunes by The Temptations play in the background. “Eventually somebody is going to hear us. It’s just a matter of time before God makes his move.”

A group of 10 plaintiffs and three minors who lived, or currently live, within that area sued the city in 2017. They asked the city “to set up a fund for [residents] …, which the city has never done before,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jason Clark said.

The requested monitoring and treatment would cost “well in the millions” of dollars related to past, present and future possible health issues created by Old Smokey, Clark added.

But the money has been blocked by legal technicalities. The city contends it never received a pre-suit notice from the plaintiffs, which would invalidate the complaint. That took years and two amended complaints to correct.

Comissioner Sabina Covo claims the litigation is slow-moving because “there are multiple health issues.”

“Many times when there’s one issue that is relevant to all of the families, things move faster,” Covo said. “It’s really hard to scientifically prove that [the incinerator] was actually getting the families sick. The most important thing is for the families to be safe.”

She could not disclose other comments as the litigation is ongoing.

The city has since moved to dismiss the case twice since then, claiming the complaint should never have been allowed in the first place and “did not follow the binding precedent.” It’s lawyers also claimed “sovereign immunity” from medical montioring.

“Sovereign immunity basically means a city or or any municipality is immune to lawsuits,” Clark said. “Most governments waive sovereign immunity for negligence claims if the city performs negligent acts that harm somebody.”

Two judges in the trial court tossed the sovereign immunity claims. The city is now seeking an appellate court’s approval to rid the case, and undermine the judges decision to move forward.

A hearing date for this is not yet known, Clark noted. Though the end goal is to reperate the wallets and health of thousands impacted by Old Smokey.

Estelle Lockhart, former PTA president of George Washington Carver Elementary School – located just feet away from the Old Smokey site – called the city’s lack of reparations for West Grove residents, “environmental racism,” which she described as, “putting undesirable and unhealthy environmental impacts on the marginalized communities.”

Gaitor, who lifts weights to beat his ash-scarred lungs, agreed that as a Black man, he feels the city’s motions to dismiss the case, and its years of prolonged recovery efforts, were racially motivated. It’s no coincidence the city placed a suffocation-inducing smokestack in the Black-only area of Coconut Grove in 1925.

Gaitor is now flooded with medical bills and grief after Gaitor’s sister wound up at the hospital in early May, and his father died from cancers related to Old Smokey.

“Especially in a predominantly Black neighborhood, they want to cover this shit up,” he said, pointing from his yard toward Carver Elementary across the street. “I feel bad for those kids that go to school here. When shit starts happening to your kids, remember that Black guy that was over here telling you about all this.”

This story was produced by a Caplin News student in conjunction with the Coconut Grove Spotlight.

Jesse Fraga studies Digital Journalism as well as Women's and Gender Studies. He was awarded "Best Coverage of LGBT Issues" and "Best News Photo" by the Society of Professional Journalists Sunshine State Awards. Fraga works as an intern for Miami New Times and was the former News Director of PantherNOW. He hopes to bridge the gap between queer news and mainstream media.