Sewergate

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

For several years county officials have known the precarious condition of the pipeline; engineers have predicted that corrosive gasses in the sewage will eat through the seven-inch-thick pipe by 1997. And that's admittedly an optimistic guess. In spite of the impending doom, bureaucrats spent years doing little else but writing each other memoranda about the problem. The discussion acquired a sense of urgency only last spring, after a critical report issued by a Dade County Grand Jury.

These things are certain: There is no way to turn off the flow through the pipe, and a rupture would be environmentally and economically catastrophic. Biologists predict that in the event of a serious break, the resulting spill would cause fish kills and damage to coral reefs, and would close the bay to commercial and recreational activities for weeks, if not months.

In the boldest action so far, state environmental regulators have forced the county to implement a ban on new sewer hookups in Central Dade, a dramatic move designed to relieve pressure on the cross-bay pipeline and the rest of the system while officials develop a schedule for the pipe's replacement. The moratorium has essentially halted all new construction in the restricted area, which includes the cities of Miami, Hialeah, Hialeah Gardens, Miami Springs, Coral Gables, South Miami, and Sweetwater, and parts of unincorporated Dade. Environmental officials don't expect to lift the restrictions in their entirety until a new cross-bay pipeline is in place. No one expects that to be completed for at least another two and a half years.

These are tense and paranoid times for local, state, and federal officials even remotely responsible for the well-being of the sewer system. Recently, when state regulators finally noticed the ills of Dade's system, they threatened legal action and heavy fines while yanking the county into negotiations for developing a plan to repair and maintain the sewer system. At stake is no less than the economic and environmental health of Dade County. Meanwhile, federal officials are watching closely and have made clear their intention to sue Metro-Dade if the results of the negotiations aren't to their satisfaction.

No one dares hazard a guess at the expected cost of repairing and expanding the system. Officials are simply calling it "The Billion Dollar Question." And you can be sure, everyone in Dade will pay.

William S. McMurphy had had enough. So the 66-year-old retired engineer sat down at his computer on December 7, 1992, and started typing: "Dear Mr. Sloan," began the normally unflappable West Dade resident in his letter to the chief of WASAD, the county's sewer department, "RAW SEWAGE flowing through our backyard is neither a pleasant sight nor smell. This sewage overflows into the canal, POLLUTING both Blue Lake & Westwood Lake. Many people boat, fish, and swim in these lakes, which creates an even greater HEALTH HAZARD.

"This RAW SEWAGE overflows from a manhole in our backyard that has been intermittently backing-up for twenty years.... Every time there is an extra heavy rain the overflow reoccurs. Sometimes it lasts a day or two, or as it did in November, it can last two weeks. We routinely call WASAD, and sometimes DERM, but the problem remains until the water level recedes, and then everyone seems to forget about it."

McMurphy's frustration is shared by citizens across Dade County who have been sloshing through their own and their neighbors' excrement. During every big rainfall, pipes fill up, pump stations break down, and sewage backs up into people's lives: through dozens, if not hundreds, of manholes, toilets, and kitchen sinks around the county. Not to mention through outfall pipes and breaks in the lines. In this way, the problems of the sewage system, buried several feet underground, have bubbled up periodically into the public consciousness.

It's anyone's guess how many times sewage has leaked out of the system when no one was around to witness it and notify authorities. Florida law, however, requires that Dade sewer officials report all known "abnormal events" to local and state environmental agencies. (The state can seek civil penalties of up to $10,000 per day per violation of its environmental statutes.) But recently officials from the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) began to realize how few spills they'd actually been told about.

As part of their effort to build a legal case against Dade County, several state investigators rummaged through the sewer department's maintenance records one day last month. What they found was alarming: documentation of 363 sewage spills and overflows due to problems in WASAD's lines.

The numbers were even more astonishing considering they only represented the period from March 1992 to January 1993. Overflows were recorded every month during that time. "We didn't even know how complete that file was for that period," says John Patronio, a DER environmental specialist coordinating the case against Dade County. "There may have been other files relating to that period in other boxes. We just went through one box. That's all we had time for." What the documents didn't indicate, though, was the size of the overflows. "It might be five gallons just bubbling up and disappearing down a storm drain," Patronio adds, "or half a million gallons." Only a few people have known about these numbers. They have been WASAD's dirty little secret.

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