Betty Osceola leads a prayer walk along Biscayne Boulevard in Miami on May 13, 2023. The group walked on the public land that borders the Perez Art Museum, owned by the founder of Related Group. (Photo by Nicole Combeau)

At least three archaeologists who worked on excavating ancient Tequesta artifacts in Miami’s highly contested Brickell neighborhood report health concerns after being exposed to arsenic, tungsten, mercury, benzene, and other harmful chemicals at the former oil refinery site. Three separate Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaints have been filed by workers at the 77 SE 5th St. location, two against PaleoWest, LLC, an archaeology firm that contracts archaeologists, and one against Related Group, which owns and is developing the site. The investigations are open and ongoing. In anonymous interviews with Prism, three workers shared their concerns about their health and the unique safety concerns at play while working at the landmark site. 

The 77 SE 5th St. location has been marred with problems from the start, causing environmental and health issues for archaeologists, including fainting, nausea, rashes, and compulsive sneezing. The site is the former location of Standard Oil refinery tanks, and the possible presence of harmful chemicals like cancer-causing benzene have been both a cause for concern and questions. As a result, the archaeologists were required to take a health and safety training course, and OSHA stopped the digging at the site twice to conduct tests. 

According to Sheryl, an archaeologist who worked at the site and requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, the soil was sandy and thin. There were no insects, and after just 3 or 4 inches of digging, they hit the aquifer, a giant system of connected, porous limestone all the water flows in and out of. To continue digging, Sheryl says, they would pump the water out, giving them less than an hour before the water filled back up—spreading the pollutants and exposing the workers in the process. She recalls seeing oil collect in the holes of the porous rock.

“[The oil] is gonna be everywhere, and they don’t want to admit that; everybody’s in a herd mentality,” Sheryl said. “No one’s ever dealt with this bad of an oversight from whoever was in charge of the environmental survey that is required before anything happened. Whether Related paid them off, or whether it was just regular Miami incompetence, I don’t know, but definitely, the whole site is obviously contaminated.”

While working in the pits, Sheryl said management encouraged workers to stick their upper torsos through the holes, hang from their knees to get to the bottom of the holes, and dig out every last bit of freshly wet dirt to get any artifacts out from the limestone. Sheryl said she could smell the petroleum.

“There was one time that I was doing that, and there was a lot of oil, and I got really lightheaded,” Sheryl said. “That’s when I felt affected by the petroleum.”

Sheryl recalls feeling nauseated and unable to eat, and she experienced stomach pains, headaches, and coughing and sneezing. She was quickly moved to another section but was coincidentally let go without cause after voicing her health concerns. Her blood work eventually came back with above-normal levels of tungsten.

“[My colleagues all say] this is the coolest and most important site they’ve ever worked on,” Sheryl said. “But at the same time, this is the most dangerous site they’ve ever been on and can affect the rest of their lives. So it’s like, what do you care more about, your reputation or your health?”

George, a worker who requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, filed an OSHA complaint against his employer, PaleoWest, LLC, on Aug. 18, 2022. While he was digging in one of the pits, he said he became severely itchy. The next day, he woke up with rashes along his arm and other parts of his body, had trouble breathing, a painful lump in his throat, and swollen lymph nodes. George contacted his supervisor, who suggested he take COVID-19 test, which eventually came back negative. George says he was never briefed on safety precautions or protocol for handling situations like this, which could constitute an OSHA violation.

“Nobody’s wearing ventilators; nobody has the appropriate protection,” George said. “We were finding chunks of asbestos and handling it. The truth of the matter is it’s a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen.”

In an email response sent to George from PaleoWest on Aug. 20, 2022, management said their course of action is to discuss a better method of conveying health and safety information to all project site personnel when encountering contaminated soil.

According to a Soil Sampling Summary Report from 2021, total recoverable petroleum hydrocarbons (TRPH), arsenic, barium, lead, mercury, and benzopyrene, were found above the state’s residential criteria. According to the report, NV5, the company that completed the sampling report, recommended additional sampling be evaluated in three particular areas where TRPH or benzopyrene were detected above the residential criteria. The report also recommends an evaluation of the various engineering controls that could be utilized in these areas, such as improving airflow and limiting work in these areas. 

“They’re shaving potentially years off of the hundreds of people who go in and out of there,” George said. “One supervisor told me that if I want to continue being an archaeologist, I need to get comfortable with cancer.”

George was eventually called into a meeting to discuss his safety concerns. George said he was reprimanded and yelled at by the head of the site and the head of HR for bringing up safety issues and was ultimately fired after one month on the site.

A third archaeologist, Brenda, who requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, worked on the site for two months in late 2022. According to Brenda, she was told the levels of contamination were below levels of any concern. Soon after she began working on the site, she began having stomach issues with loss of hunger and diarrhea. She didn’t correlate it to the site until other colleagues started fainting and contracting flu-like symptoms.

“I do feel that there needs to be more concern from the developers who fund the excavations to actually take care of [health concerns] first before they bring any people in,” Brenda said. 

“They’re trying to cover up the importance of the archaeological finds”

The project has spanned more than two years and has uncovered over a million artifacts dating back to a more than 2,500-year-old Tequesta marketplace. The long-awaited vote to preserve the ancient Indigenous market site at the southern bank of the Miami River was delayed in April by the city’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, and the board is expected to make a decision on the designation in July. If the designation is approved, Related Group would be required to preserve all or a portion of the site and exhibit the artifacts in a public space while highlighting the archaeological and historical significance.

The archaeological site has surfaced “extraordinary” discoveries, including 7,000-year-old spearheads, stone points from the Archaic period, nets and twine made of plant fiber, and a wooden device used to start fires, among other artifacts. Human remains were also discovered, including teeth and a gravesite with skeletal fragments. Animal remains of fish, reptiles, deer, a now-extinct Caribbean monk seal, and a megalodon tooth were also a part of the discovery, painting a vibrant picture of a thriving Indigenous community that long predates Miami’s present.

“It’s an extremely lucrative and important site, and they wanted us to not talk about the fact that they had found the jewelry and arrowheads and leather and human burial mounds and ceremonial dog burial, and we’re finding thousands and thousands of artifacts every single day,” said George. “It’s a major site, and the fact that it’s not turning into an archaeological park or museum site or a government-protected site is frankly offensive … It may be one of the most important sites in the country, and it’s being bulldozed over. But technically, we weren’t allowed to talk about it.”

According to George, the site is being run in an atypical manner. George says the site is being led by the realtor the Related Group, followed by one primary consulting archaeological firm, PaleoWest, followed by five other firms under that one, which includes the nonprofit Archaeological and Historical Conservancy. 

Founded by Jorge Perez, the Related Group is responsible for most of Miami’s luxury condominiums and has an estimated $2.7 billion in revenue. According to George, Perez’s sons were frequently on site surveying the work. 

“They’re trying to cover up the importance of the archaeological finds,” George said. “It was generally understood that the two buildings next to them are also probably going to be demolished and that the archaeological site most likely extends under them as well.”

After protests from archaeologists and Indigenous community members and a five-hour-long contentious meeting, the city approved the development of two Related Group proposed towers at 77 SE 5th St. on April 4. The buildings will include luxury high-rise Baccarat Residences, owned by the Related Group. The artifacts will be preserved, but the Historic and Environmental Preservation staff will only bring an action plan to the board within six months of the completion of the excavation. A vote for official historic designation of the adjacent 444 Brickell Ave. site will be delayed until July. Miami’s Miccosukee, Taino, and Seminole communities say preserving the site is essential to respecting past and present Indigenous communities.

Betty Osceola, Indigenous communities, and their allies are still pushing against the development and excavation. On May 13, Osceola led a second prayer walk, this time going along Biscayne Boulevard, arriving on the public land that borders the Perez Art Museum, named after Related Group’s founder, Perez, following his $35 million donation.

“Perez in the public eye has this image of philanthropy, that he is this amazing individual that is respectful of cultures and is a very benevolent person,” Osceola said. “But what he’s actually doing is disrespecting the Indigenous people and our ancestors. But we also want to pray for him. I want to pray that he changes who he is as a human being.”

George says he hopes that the companies can implement actual safety measures for those who are working on the site. 

“I don’t think people should have to die during that process,” George said. “They’re hurting people, and they’re hurting the archaeological and historical provenance of our country and Native peoples, and that shouldn’t happen.”

Prism reached out to PaleoWest, LLC, and Related Group for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...