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Alan Farago, Sierra Club Miami conservation chair, has a nightmarish vision for the future of South Florida. It's 2030 and the population of the four-county region has almost doubled from today's just under five million people to nine million. In Miami-Dade the urban development boundary has expanded like the waistline of a diet-program dropout. With subdivisions flush against protected Everglades, more residents are crowding east into the urban core while the county struggles to maintain services. Developers, lobbyists, and builders are among the many who have benefited from the growth. But not everyone is happy. There are serious problems in the megalopolis, and it's not just the traffic.
The toxic misdeeds of the past are haunting the present. South Florida's citizens are becoming sick. Water seems to be the culprit. Unknown to most Miami-Dade residents, for nearly 50 years the county has injected an average of more than 100,000 gallons of sewage per day deep into the earth.
Many have profited from this out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy. Effectively disposing of human and other fluid wastes by a method called deep well injection has kept both sewer bills and the costs of development down. But the effluent, as county bureaucrats call it, refuses to stay below. In its journey upward, it has poisoned the drinking water. As South Floridians go about their daily business, a massive toxic lake of filth lies close to the surface.
As usual, big money and bureaucratic bungling played major roles in the tragedy. Not only did the federal government do nothing to stop the disaster, it was their idea in the first place. Now, to provide the life-giving water for an enormous population, the county must strip the salt from the sea or treat sewage until it's clean. Either way, taxpayers are faced with a billion-dollar crisis that threatens to render paradise a wasteland.
“When pollution meets the ground water, we will have created a desert,” warns Farago. “People may still live [here], but it is going to be a blighted area.” On a recent humid morning at a pleasant sidewalk café in Coconut Grove, Farago zealously relates his grim forecast. Unfortunately his prediction can't be dismissed as just the tale of an environmental alarmist.
There are strong indications the crisis has already begun.
In three Florida counties, including Miami-Dade, sewage from such deep wells has been detected in one of the aquifers. For about eighteen years millions of gallons of wastewater has been pumped underground; the full scale of the contamination remains unknown. What we do know is that thirteen deep injection wells are operating in Miami-Dade, and some of them are poisoning our drinking-water supplies. The federal government believes 23 other counties between Miami and Orlando may soon join the list of the polluted.
And there's more bad news. Recently the Sierra Club commissioned a report from an independent geologist, Donald McNeill. It included information from the county's own contractors that shows improper construction of deep wells in South Miami-Dade. It's likely this is the true source of much of the contamination found in the drinking water.
McNeill believes the county geologists had little scientific evidence to back their conclusions that a limestone layer would cap the sewage deep beneath the ground. The county's consultants stated that wastewater would drift to the east, surfacing far into the depths of the ocean over a period of thousands of years. In fact it seems to be heading west into the aquifer after only eleven years. Now the county is struggling to learn where it's actually going.
Worst of all, the geologist discovered county contractors drilled injection holes too shallow, missing the hard rock layer that might indeed have kept the sewage trapped below. Once the drinking water is contaminated there is no going back. It appears the Environmental Protection Agency, the state regulatory agency, and county officials put South Florida's drinking water at risk with no clear idea whether it was truly safe.
Farago hopes McNeill's report will form a cornerstone in his attack against the deep well injection process. By challenging operating permits, environmentalists have stymied the county's attempts to use four newly constructed injection wells. Farago promises that more lawsuits are on the way.
For decades Farago has fought urban sprawl in South Florida, believing it to be a quality-of-life cancer. But despite activists' efforts, he and other environmental groups have largely failed in their struggle. Now, for the first time, Farago is optimistic that activists have an effective tool to halt sprawl by using the courts to force the state and federal government to enforce clean water laws. “These people have screwed up and there's no denying it,” he says as he finishes his bagel. “They are going to have to deal with us. It's a great country.”
Florida is the only state in the nation that allows municipal waste to be injected into the earth. But when federal and state environmental regulators approved deep well injection in Florida, they based their decision on untested assumptions of geology and mistaken predictions of the region's growth. Needless to say their happy ending failed to materialize. After nearly twenty years of injecting sewage, South Florida has become hooked on this method of disposal, and like separating a hophead from his heroin, weaning local governments and utilities off the practice may prove all but impossible.