Sewergate

If you think Dade County is a filthy mess now, just wait till you're drowning in it

In the arcane world of modern hydraulics and flush toilets, there is one widely held assumption: what goes down will stay down. You answer the call of nature, push the handle, and keep on walking. Few care to dwell on what happens next, and fewer still care to talk about it. The unappealing business of human-waste disposal, after all, is the government's responsibility.

Unfortunately, this blind faith has now come back to haunt residents of Dade County. To put it gently, our sewer system has, in recent years, taken to puking its contents all over the place. On a frighteningly regular basis.

It is a chronic condition that makes every body of water in Dade a potential locus of disease, every puddle a possible wellspring of plague. What has happened, essentially, is that the county has gotten too big for its britches and the sewage system simply can't handle it. Dade's complicated maze of underground pipes and treatment facilities, first begun in the 1920s then updated in the 1950s and again in the 1970s, is long overdue for repair and expansion. Every day that passes, and every rain storm that heads our way, carries the threat of disaster.

In modern systems, two distinct labyrinths of pipes separate rain water from raw sewage that needs treatment. But in parts of Dade's system, like those of older U.S. cities, the storm drainage and sewer drainage are combined. In addition, the sewer system suffers from decaying pipes and poor connections that allow rain water to seep in. As a result, as much as a third of the water pumped to sewage treatment plants is actually storm water. Substantial rainfalls often overwhelm the system meant to handle only sewage. The resulting backups and overflows send everything, rain water and raw, untreated human waste, down our streets, into our front yards, across our playgrounds, and onto our beaches.

For too long county officials have failed to put the immense problems of the sewer system a complex and decidely unsexy topic at the top of their administrative agendas. State and federal regulators, either through ignorance or a lack of staffing and funds, have added to the trouble by not being more vigilant. Meanwhile, Dade County's populace wallows in its own filth and its sewer system rushes toward collapse. The overall picture suggests a county government that has recklessly encouraged growth and development at the expense of public health and safety.

Since 1987 there have been eleven massive, recorded sewage spills or overflows resulting from a breakdown, pipe rupture, or human error. Ten million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Miami River on at least three separate occasions, April 9, 1990; May 19, 1991; and October 8, 1991. Another four million gallons discharged into the river on November 22, 1992.

When a pipe collapsed at 167th Street and Collins Avenue on December 9, 1992, about 14,000 gallons of raw sewage gushed into the streets and onto the beach, and an additional 1.5 million gallons was diverted through an abandoned pipe directly into the ocean.

State law mandates that all sewage spills and overflows, whatever the size, be reported to state and local environmental regulatory agencies. But official records reveal that the county's sewer department has failed to report hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of such incidents.

Sewer officials have stated that the overflows occur only during extraordinarily intense rainfalls. But recent studies suggest it only takes four to six inches of rain in a two-day period, a relatively frequent event, to flood pipes and overload pump stations.

No government agency regularly tests Dade's beaches and recreational waterways for the purpose of determining whether they are safe for swimming and fishing. Until May of last year, the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) conducted monthly tests at 63 sites around the county. But HRS abolished the program, purportedly for budgetary reasons, and now tests only in response to "emergency spills."

One sampling of the data recorded by HRS: Between September 1989 and December 1992, researchers collected 99 days' worth of water samples from beaches on Key Biscayne and along the Rickenbacker Causeway. They discovered dangerously high levels of harmful bacteria in the water on 45 of those days; many results indicated the presence of fecal matter. More than half of those results were gathered at times when no sewage spills had been reported.

Dade's local environmental regulatory agency, the Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), tests waters in Biscayne Bay and the rivers and canals that feed into it. But the program is designed to measure general biological patterns, not to determine whether the waters are safe for human contact on a day-to-day basis. Tests are too infrequent and sampling locations too few. Nevertheless, the results are chilling: Data collected in 1990 and 1991 reveal 597 days in which bacteria levels were above state standards, 406 in the Miami River, the remainder at other locations, including Arch Creek, Black Creek, Biscayne Canal, Coral Gables Waterway, Little River, and Biscayne Bay.

Even with its curtailed testing, HRS posted warning signs on 24 beaches for 23 days in 1992 alone a total of 552 beach postings.

Dade's three sewage treatment plants are operating at or above permitted capacity, and the county's sewer agency, the Water and Sewer Authority Department (WASAD), is woefully behind schedule in repairing and updating its system. A major pipeline carrying sewage to the Virginia Key treatment plant stands as a glaring example of this neglect. About 100 million gallons of effluvium, everything flushed down the toilets or washed down the drains of homes and offices in Central Dade A rushes through the 37-year-old cross-bay pipeline every day, enough to fill the Orange Bowl up to the cheap seats.

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