Sewergate

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

Feces, meanwhile, continues to flow merrily down Dade's streets. "We haven't exactly thrown money at the problem," Tony Clemente concedes. "Then again, there wasn't public demand to throw money at the problem. But I think that's changed." Or may be in the process of changing, now that the extent of the problem is being investigated and publicized.

Real momentum toward a solution began shortly after the infamous storm of October 8-10, 1991. During that deluge, more than 70 pump stations failed, scores of sewage overflows were reported throughout Dade, at least ten million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Miami River, and the county commission declared a state of emergency.

The downpours also washed away any lingering misconceptions that the sewer system was in fine working order. A task force of representatives from state and local agencies began to exhume the mysteries of the system. "We made a conscious decision to take off our regulatory hats and avoid finger-pointing," explains Thomas Singleton, task force coordinator and a representative from the South Florida Water Management District. "Much of the complexity of the regional sewer system had not been understood until we were able to come together as a multi-agency group."

It quickly became clear that, among other things, Dade's sewer department, WASAD, was years behind in renovating old facilities and constructing new ones, from pipelines to wastewater treatment plants. The sewer construction program, insists WASAD's Robert Ready, has been "principally delayed by changes in the regulatory climate and regulatory rules. I don't believe that you can claim our system has been laggard in expanding."

That excuse applies in part to the planned, but long delayed, expansion of the North and Central District treatment plants. However, regulatory officials have lost patience with Dade's whining. Says one state environmental official who requested anonymity: "There really is a certain arrogance that permeates their dealings with regulators. They have a habit of totally ignoring things. What happens more than not is the rules get bent for Dade County."

Pressure from the state and federal government, however, has finally forced Dade officials to face the problem. Without that pressure, there's no telling how long the county would have continued its paper-shuffling. Under the guidance of a professional mediator from the University of Florida, Dade and the state have met in three separate sessions since early February to work out a timetable for repair of the system. Says mediator Robert Moberly: "We will continue to meet every three or four weeks until the parties reach agreement." (The next mediation session is scheduled for April 15 and 16 in Gainesville.)

Judging by the first fruits of that labor, though, mediation may not be the best strategy for dealing with the deplorable state of the county's sewers. On March 1, the state and Dade County signed an agreement outlining a schedule for the replacement of the cross-bay pipeline. The agreement has not pleased everyone, particularly not U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez.

Last month Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Outerbridge sent a stiffly worded letter to Mary Williams, regional director of the state Department of Environmental Regulation, expressing concern about the mediation process. Among the concerns was the fact that the state had chosen to bypass court supervision and opt instead for a gentleman's agreement. While the agreement does permit the state to take Dade County to court over unwarranted delays, and to seek fines of up to $10,000 per day, such a process can easily get tied up in the court system. And $10,000 is loose change for the county compared to the total cost of the cross-bay project, estimated at upwards of $60 million. Furthermore, the agreement includes a broad caveat allowing Dade to extend the deadlines for a wide variety of reasons.

Newly appointed State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has also been monitoring the proceedings. "We're certainly concerned that this agreement is sufficiently enforceable," confirms Rundle's legal assistant, Edward Griffith. "Even more than that, I guess a far greater concern is: When will the work actually start? You can't help but be concerned that if the work isn't started and completed as fast as possible, we're all facing a disaster the likes of which we have never seen in modern times."

And as it stands, the timetable leaves little room for error, delay, or legal challenges. Under the agreement, Dade has until about August 1995 to build the pipeline using a trench method. But if the county chooses to dig a tunnel A a slower but more environmentally benign method A the deadline is pushed back to March 1997 A after the date engineers predict the pipeline will blow. Averting disaster will require Dade to abandon its long tradition of disorganization and tardiness in completing large-scale civic projects. "State regulators," complains one local environmental official critical of the progress, "came in too soft and too late."

In the meantime, local and state officials meeting in and outside the mediation sessions are trying to attack some of the system's other festering problems. For example, the county has instituted a new program designed to eliminate the problem of combined storm-water and sewer systems. The program is funded in part by monthly fees paid by property owners in their water and sewer bills. And engineers are now regularly testing for illegal connections throughout the system.

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