FORT LAUDERDALE — Deatra McCoy, 45, sees herself as just a shadow of her mother, the late environmental activist Leola McCoy.
“She was a firecracker, 5-foot-2 and 105 pounds on a good week,’’ McCoy said. “She would not take ‘no’ for an answer. She was as mean as a snake with the tenacity of a pit bull. But she wanted answers.’’
Her questions arose from the former Wingate Road Municipal Incinerator and Landfill, home to toxic wastes from 1954-78 on Northwest 31st Avenue in Fort Lauderdale.
Among McCoy’s questions: Why are incidences of five cancers – breast, prostate, pancreatic, kidney and eye – high in surrounding neighborhoods? How is the aftermath affecting the children? Is the water safe, because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates 353,000 people peruse four municipal well fields within three miles of the site?
Before she died last August at age 70, Leola McCoy brought to the forefront what her daughter calls “an environmental injustice that has occurred and continues to occur.’’
The elder McCoy’s tireless work resulted in a lengthy 2003 Florida Department of Health study that concluded the area had no consistent pattern of illnesses or symptoms, while also stating that the ability to find consistent patterns was limited. McCoy’s work earned her an honorary law degree from the Shepard Broad Law Center at Nova Southeastern University in 2006.
And now, right after Mother’s Day, the younger McCoy has decided to carry her mom’s torch, first by fighting a developer’s recent plan to build a charter school next to the Wingate site.
Her mother’s “motivation was the fact that this is wrong; this is my people and you can’t do this,’’ said McCoy, a paralegal who has formed the
nonprofit group, Legal Environmental Educational Social Justice, or Lee’s Justice, in honor of her mother’s nickname, Lee.
Her goal is to have Lee’s Justice keep the community aware of the former toxic dump and to help decide what to do with it.
As for the charter school, “the School Board had given preliminary approval,’’ said Louise R. Caro, a member of Lee’s Justice and supervising attorney for environmental justice at Legal Aid Service of Broward County, Inc. “The developer withdrew the application, but we don’t know what they will do. Advocacy is necessary.’’
“We have to stay on top of things,” McCoy said. “We’re already sitting on toxins, and you want to put our babies on toxins? And you wonder why Johnny can’t read. He’s eating, breathing, and playing in toxins.’’
In fact, an EPA report concluded that the soil in the area was contaminated with arsenic, lead and other chemicals, and that high concentrations of pesticides were found in a nearby lake. In 2000, debris was removed in an effort to clean the site and some structures were demolished. A progress review of the cleanup is scheduled for 2010.
Although McCoy would like to see the entire site “dug out and hauled away,’’ she said she is not optimistic that the city of Fort Lauderdale will spend the necessary money. The area, which was designated a Superfund site in 1989, currently sits under a landfill cap.
“We planned a lawsuit in the past and tried to get co-counsel, but the estimate from most firms was $4 million,’’ Caro said, referring to the amount that the lawyers would charge to handle the case. “The cap is a cheap remedy. Some areas of soil never got tested. You have to be extremely careful if there is a bad storm or groundwater issues.’’
Yet McCoy continues to live in the neighborhood, even though her father died of prostate cancer in 2004, because it’s her home.
“I guess we’re like a creature of habit,’’ she said. “I went to Dillard High School. That was the only school blacks could go to. I moved in the house next door to my parents’ house and now that mom has died I will move into her house …. and take up the banner in her honor.’’
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Deatra McCoy
IF YOU GO:
What: Legal Environmental Educational Social Justice group meeting
When: May 21, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Dillard High School cafeteria, 2501 NW 11th St., Fort Lauderdale
Why: Encourage the community to be proactive and take steps to ensure their safety and wellbeing.
Contact: Deatra McCoy, 954-358-5637.