Sewergate

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

Glander calls the protracted testing procedure "maddening." "I'd find one bad sample on one side of the Rickenbacker Causeway," he recalls. "Then the next day I'd repeat the test and find that the first side was good and the other side was bad. The damn stuff was moving around the island and I can't issue a warning! If I'd gotten out there two days earlier, maybe I'd have seen something. If WASAD reports it, then I can follow the damn thing! But that's if they report it."

Even on days of known hazards, warnings have not always been communicated effectively. One reason is Dade County's anti-bilingual ordinance, which broadly restricts public money from being spent on anything that is not printed or broadcast in English. Warning the non-English-speaking public of possible health hazards associated with sewage spills is among those prohibited expenditures. "I really hate it," says Kate Hale, director of the Metro-Dade Office of Emergency Management. "I would like to go at least trilingual. I find it cumbersome to worry about whether I'm violating an ordinance. I need to be concerned about making sure people have the correct information to protect their lives!"

HRS's Thorne Glander recounts one telling scene after the sewage spill at 167th Street and Collins Avenue this past December. The spill forced the closure of the beaches in that area for several days. "I took a picture of two tourists running down the beach in sewage," he says. "They didn't understand English and I went, 'Caca!' and they jumped. The point is that advisories don't get to everyone."

This incomplete notification regarding known health hazards applies especially to areas of chronic sewage contamination. "If I were giving a recommendation to the department," offers DERM's Susan Markley, "I would recommend that certain areas should be posted as being generally contaminated, say twenty percent of the time, and are not suitable for recreation. The Miami River, for instance, should be posted all the time."

Ineffective warnings, apparent failures in reporting all sewage spills, an absence of routine water testing, deterioration of the sewer system generally and potential catastrophe from a rupture of the cross-bay pipeline in particular if all this sounds like official neglect of major proportions, it only foreshadows the enormous costs to come.

Residents have already begun to pay for Dade's lethargy under the January 27 ban on new sewers, which was instigated by state regulators and is intended to relieve pressure on the cross-bay pipeline and the rest of the system. Under the order, people building a new structure in the restricted area (which includes most of Central Dade and a slice of Northeast Dade) must install a septic tank or build their own sewage plant. In many cases, these options aren't feasible: septic tanks can't process the waste from large buildings and private treatment plants are extremely expensive.

The order is expected to have a dramatic impact on economic development in the region, particularly in the area west of the airport, where hundreds of acres have been purchased for new warehouses. "Real estate activity had begun to pick up in Dade County," notes Tom Dixon, a real estate appraiser for the firm Dixon & Friedman. "The moratorium, though, has put it on hold. Who wants to buy a piece of property and speculate whether it's going to be six months, a year, or two years before you can do something with it? If the moratorium continues beyond another three months, then it's going to be devastating." Local government officials say they haven't yet begun to feel pressure from developers to lift the moratorium, but they expect it to begin in force any day now.

John Renfrow, director of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), says that over time the boundaries of the moratorium will shift. The first area to be removed, he predicts, will be the northeast section of Dade, sometime within the next six to eight months. An entire lifting of the moratorium, he says, is dependent on the completion of the cross-bay pipeline. And no one expects that to be completed before August 1995.

Nothing, though, will translate to an individual's wallet with the force of sewer-rate hikes. And Dade taxpayers should expect them to be sizable. Assistant County Manager Tony Clemente estimates rises "in excess of ten percent a year" for the next five years.

"That's a very modest estimate," admits J centsse L centspez, chief of DERM's wastewater section. "It depends how fast you want to get out of the hole. To get out of the hole you have to spend money. I wouldn't be surprised if our rates double within five years." Other county officials expect rates to triple within the next five to ten years.

Dade's sewer rates, a frequent source of citizen complaints, have been kept low relative to others around the nation. (Rate hikes, along with the rest of the sewer authority's budget, must be approved by the county commission.) County figures show the average base water and sewer bill is $29.58 per month for homeowners who use sewers maintained by WASAD. That compares to Tampa's $35.40, Broward County's $42.78, Philadelphia's $45.70, San Francisco's $50.94, and Houston's $65.72.

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