Sewergate

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

"I don't think we'd report one gallon," explains Robert Ready, WASAD's assistant director for operations and maintenance. "I don't think it would be in danger of public contact. If we have sewer backups or spills that get into any surface water or into storm sewers or the public right of way or a place that can be contacted by the public, we report it." (Contrary to Ready's explanation, many of the 363 "abnormal events" reviewed by the state involved overflows through manholes. And manholes are usually located in public rights-of-way.)

The state's environmental officials were not pleased with their discovery. Says Patronio: "We are considering even a blockage in a small line to be a breakdown worthy of a $10,000 penalty."

And it's a safe bet there have been many more sewage spills, pipe ruptures, overflows, and system breakdowns that state regulators don't know about, because Dade's sewer system is highly decentralized. While WASAD operates most of the county's sewer facilities, including the three principal treatment plants, many cities have created autonomous agencies that own and operate their local sewer systems. Each city could have its own records of sewage spills that were never reported as required by law.

Environmental officials also acknowledge the possibility that a local sewer agency could have been aware of a major system failure or spill and intentionally never reported it. When asked whether he thinks Dade County has reported every known 1000-gallon spill, Vicente Arrebola, a division head at the county's environmental regulatory agency, replied, "I couldn't answer that for you. If I were to venture a guess, I would say no." Spills over 100,000? "That's more in line with what I'd expect would be noticed," he offered, sounding far from confident.

One of the insidious things about loose sewage is that it's slippery stuff, very difficult to trace. When it overflows into a public street, it rushes for the nearest storm drain, which can carry it directly into local canals, lakes, rivers, and Biscayne Bay. So if the sewage doesn't get you on the ground, it may get you in the water. And you might not know until it's too late.

Beyond eyewitness accounts, though, health and environmental officials have only one check against unreported spills: water-quality testing. The most widely used test searches for coliform bacteria; high concentrations of a certain type indicate the presence of large amounts of fecal matter and constitute a violation of state standards for safe human contact.

Years of water-quality tests by local and state authorities have long documented severe pollution in the Miami River, the sorry condition of which has been widely noted by local environmental officials and by a recent Dade County Grand Jury report. But less known publicly is the contamination of the other Dade canals and waterways. "We've already communicated that Arch Creek and Little River and Black Creek are sites where there are violations of coliform bacteria standards," says Susan Markley, chief of DERM's division of natural resources. "Those are locations that somewhere between one-quarter and half the time you might see high coliform readings."However, Assistant County Manager Tony Clemente, who is Dade's representative in the ongoing negotiations with the state, asserts that such high coliform levels do not definitely point to sewage spills. "A lot of variables can affect those readings," he insists. Indeed, animal waste, certain types of groundwater runoff, and sediments can register coliform counts. State officials grudgingly acknowledge this point. "There's a major problem linking the data to the sewer system," admits Paul Phillips, an engineer with the state Department of Environmental Regulation. "But they're in Dade County waters. Therefore they indicate a problem in Dade County proper." And in cases of very high coliform readings, which means most of the time in the Miami River and often in the canals, scientists don't question that they indicate raw sewage.

Clemente is equally reluctant to leap to conclusions about the excessive coliform readings along the Rickenbacker Causeway and Key Biscayne beaches, numbers he admitted surprised him. The high levels, he says, "Suggest that there's bacteria in the water. The question is whether it's safe to swim in those waters."

At no time have Dade County residents been able to say with absolute certainty that the water they swim in is perfectly safe. Even HRS's former beach testing was no guarantee. The problem lies in the procedure for reporting and verifying high-bacteria water. Under current testing methods, it takes anywhere from two days to a week to process water samples. And HRS guidelines demand that if high coliform content is discovered, scientists must then return for a second consecutive day of high readings before they can declare the water unsafe for human contact and post a warning.

If there had, in fact, been a sewage spill, it could easily drift to another location in those intervening days. "One of my contentions is that if you want to do a proper study, you should do it once every three days if you really want to catch an event, because it can wash out," asserts Thorne Glander, an HRS scientist who used to conduct the water-quality tests at beaches around Dade. "Do I think there are spills occurring that we don't know about? Yes. Can I prove it? No. My [monthly] samples from pre-May 1992 only indicate a point in time at the end of the month. So what happens at the middle of the month? We don't have any records. We found elevated readings that weren't related to publicized spills."

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