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Miami has hope for its poisoned river

From a distance it looked like a large coconut floating lazily on the oily water under the palm trees. It turned out to have outstretched claws.

The bloated, headless body of a chicken had been tossed into the polluted current as an appeal to the gods.

Such sights are common on the Miami River, where animal sacrifices share crowded waters with colorful Haitian freighters and mammoth cargo ships.

Winding from the edge of the Everglades, past downtown Miami's skyscrapers and out to Biscayne Bay, the four-and-a-half-mile channel is the mother vein of a city devoted to water.

It's also a vein of commerce that generated $2.4-billion in trade last year.

Most of the river is walled off by warehouses and shipyards, and most Miamians consider it mainly an inconvenience when they consider it at all, usually as they stew inside air-conditioned cars behind an open drawbridge.

Those who love the river revel in its people: the burly tugboat captains and dockyard capitalists, the laid-back houseboaters and even the followers of the Afro-Catholic religion of Santeria, who keep garbage crews busy hauling an average of 48 decapitated chickens from the water each month.

River life is entertainment to Bill Bonner, a crotchety, retired Miami cop who has lived since 1974 with his wife, Eleanor, and a crew of cats on the American Eagle, an aging wooden schooner.

"About five or six people a week come down to the river," says Bonner, grinning as he describes the scene.

"Once I saw a woman wade in. She takes off all her clothes, throws them way into the river, and then rubs a live chicken all over her. Then someone else kills the chicken. Now the girl's naked in the water, the chicken is floating away, and I'm thinking, "Let's go get the chicken, we'll eat the damn thing!' "

Bonner's joking about the eating. Although he's seen manatees, alligators and eels in the water, nothing that touches it is fit for human consumption, not with raw human waste gushing from sewage pipes and plenty of toxic sediment.

The county says 614,000 cubic yards of sludge coats the bottom, which was only about 15 feet down to begin with. It forces the biggest freighters to go out only 80 percent full to avoid running aground.

"You're leaving a lot of cargo behind. That would be a lot of gravy," says Teo A. Babun Jr., founder of the Miami River Marine Group, which is pressuring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the waterway for the first time in 30 years.

But finding a home for the waste has proved difficult, particularly since it has been known to catch fire when exposed to the subtropical sun. Nearby landfills are filling up already, and the Environmental Protection Agency has blocked the Corps' plan to dump the muck offshore.

Meanwhile, the river is so full of fecal coliform bacteria that police divers refuse to search it for evidence, unless it's a gun used in the killing of a police officer. That's what happened last June.

"I sent one fellow in, and he came down with a rash. He missed two weeks of diving, and he had to go to a dermatologist," says Sgt. Steve Travis of the Miami Police Marine Patrol. "Just the average gun used in a robbery is not worth the risk."

The pollution is so bad that a grand jury has begun investigating its causes. Bilge water from freighters and houseboat plumbing are culprits, but the county has acknowledged that crumbling sewers are mostly to blame.

Still, the stench didn't stop the city in January from approving a master plan that would turn abandoned shipyards and vacant lots into a "Riverwalk" of trendy shops, restaurants and condominiums.

"I have a vision," says Babun, who supports the plan. "The river, unlike most things, can be all things to all people."

To Tommy Sykes, who runs the Big Fish, a waterside spot popular with lawyers and bankers as well as blue-collar workers, the river is a neglected resource. He jokes about the "Victoria Hilton" across the river _ the abandoned Victoria shipyards where homeless people live in boxcars.

Sykes has said for years that the spot is ideal for Miami's long-planned performing arts center. His lunch guests chuckle, but the idea is finally gaining momentum. Now even the master plan endorses Sykes' proposal.

But floating chickens and toxic muck aren't all that might turn the stomachs of capuccino-sipping tourists. The channel also is a major entry point for illegal drugs.

More than 35 law enforcement entities work the river, but only Customs agents can search ships without warrants. They work with crowbars and a power drill, ripping apart paneling and crawling through bulkheads. Last year, the "river rats" found more than 1,520 pounds of cocaine this way, according to agent Bill Olejasz.

"In other ports they don't even board the ships anymore. They do it electronically. But we can't risk that here," Olejasz says, fighting nausea as he pokes through rotting rice and bilge water on a Haitian freighter. "If we stopped for two weeks, word would get back to the Caribbean and we'd be flooded with drugs."

The international embargo on trade with Haiti has quieted the dockyards, where ship captains and petty thieves have come together for years to buy andsell hot merchandise. Freighters that once sailed for Haiti overloaded with stolen bicycles and broken refrigerators stand empty now.

This is fine to Capt. Bob Barr, president of Florida Marine Towing, who says the Haitian traders give river traffic a bad name.

"There's an awful lot of good people on the river," says Barr.

Bonner says he and the other 90 or so river dwellers just want to keep their place on the river. There aren't many places left in Miami where free-spirited people can sit back, listen to Jimmy Buffett sing about Margaritaville and watch manatees swim by without worrying about what the neighbors think.