Straight Flush

Experts say the big sewage pipeline under Biscayne Bay could burst at any moment. If it does -- bye, bye, Miami.

With replacement plans finally under way, officials at WASA and DERM are tossing blame for the delay back and forth. "We had many meetings and many discussions with the environmental people," complains Sloan, "and no matter what you came up with, if there was any disruption of seagrass, they said no. We were out there three or four years. We kept trying and trying and trying. But the attitude of the regulatory agencies is, `We don't care if you ever get it done.'"

Several DERM officials, annoyed by the assertion that they hindered the development of a new pipeline, suggest that WASA never elevated the replacement project to a top priority. "I wouldn't agree that the department has ever been an obstacle to the replacement of the pipeline," contends Susan Markley, DERM's chief of the natural resources division. "The department worked closely with WASA to evaluate different routes, and we recommended routes that minimized impacts to the seagrass and other natural resources. I don't believe any environmental regulatory agency ever stated or put in writing that the project couldn't be permitted if there were impacts to sea grasses or other resources."

Meanwhile, everyone is nervously watching the clock. WASA has prepared a contingency plan that briefly outlines emergency responses to a pipeline failure. In the event of a rupture, WASA would try to divert some of the flow to waste-treatment plants in South and North Dade, but most would admittedly be discharged into the bay and the Miami River through the broken pipe and emergency outflows. Residents, according to the emergency plan, would be asked to "reduce sewage flow as much as possible" and "avoid contact with contaminiated surface water." Divers would locate the leak, and a marine contractor would attempt to patch it as quickly as possible, or replace the damaged section of pipe. At worst, says Lopez, sewage would pour into Biscayne Bay for three or four months until repairs were completed.

With this dreadful scenario in mind, Sloan insists he's rushing the replacement project and optimistically estimates that work could begin by next March. That is, if the design and bidding processes go smoothly. (The project's cost will be included in a $150 million sewer bond issue later this year.) Sloan believes the new pipeline should be in place by mid-1996, leaving no room for error and only months to spare before DERM's predicted Doomsday.

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