Fortunately the county sewer authority has developed a contingency plan specifically for response to a cross-bay pipe break. It details the procedure for notifying the public, locating and repairing the break, and containing and cleaning up the spill. But despite these measures, officials acknowledge that a pipe rupture would be an environmental and economic disaster. In the event of a break, the contingency plan orders sewer officials to divert sewage to Dade's two other treatment plants. But those systems are already operating above capacity and can't handle much more sewage. Therefore sewer officials would be forced to dump raw sewage into the Miami River and Biscayne Bay until repairs are made to the cross-bay pipeline. And that could take weeks, if not months.
WASAD recently applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to lay a new pipeline across the bay. The pipe would run from SW 15th Road off Brickell Avenue, southeast across the bay, intersecting with the Rickenbacker Causeway at the Miami Marine Stadium. At that point it would continue underground alongside the causeway, then turn northeast onto the service road that leads to the Virginia Key treatment plant. County officials estimate the plan would destroy 3.3 acres of seagrass beds and half an acre of mangroves.
The proposed route surprised some officials at the county's environmental regulatory agency, who two years ago had recommended a longer but less environmentally damaging route along the Rickenbacker Causeway. WASAD officials had appeared to embrace that option. Even though the linear distance of WASAD's preferred path is shorter than the other one, it may elicit more legal challenges from environmental groups and may take longer to secure necessary permits. "We felt that changing the location that was agreed upon two years ago doesn't help in expediting the process," confided one county environmental official who requested anonymity. "We don't have time to be looking at alternatives now. We can't study this for another three years."
Indeed, there is no time for delay, especially in light of the Easter weekend spill, which emphasized the fragility of Dade's woefully outdated and decrepit sewer system. Since the accident, several county and state officials have warned that the system is probably in far worse shape than anyone ever imagined. As of late last week officials had no explanation for the rupture at NW Fourth Street and North River Drive. Sewer engineers know that a power failure occurred in the system Friday morning, possibly causing a pressure surge in the pipeline. The surge may have blown off a bolted cast-iron cap, designed for pipe access during construction. But officials say they didn't see any signs of wear or decay at the point of rupture. A metallurgist is examining the pipe.
Most alarming to sewer and environmental officials, though, is the fact that several more such cast-iron caps are located in the central sewer district, six of them underwater along the cross-bay pipeline. Sewer administrators admit that the recent accident has raised the possibility that a similar rupture could occur at any time. And such a blow could make the Good Friday spill look like a water fountain next to Old Faithful.
Several officials warn that the system is probably in far worse shape than ever imagined.