Deep Well Infection

A sordid tale about breaking rule number one: Don't shit where you drink

“Upon final operating approval, the treated wastewater flows through the [last] 24-inch pipe and down approximately 3000 feet into the injection zone, where it dissipates into the extremely salty waters of the “boulder zone,' safely away from the surface environment and from primary drinking-water supplies,” the utility companies' press release concludes.

Only in the South Miami-Dade district, where the water and sewer department has seventeen injection wells, it didn't quite work out that way. According to the county's own consulting firm CH2M Hill, the problems began on well number two. When then-well-builder Alsay poured the cement to bond the steel pipe with the surrounding rock, it kept losing the asphalt into the boulder zone. It would disappear into the vast caverns. Alsay didn't change their construction procedure until well number eight. By that time truckloads of cement, thousands of sacks, had disappeared into the holes. Well builders poured gravel down to try to keep the cement in place, to no avail.

So county officials altered the rules for the next ten wells. Alsay set the final pipe from which the sewage would pour at about 2500 feet. The depth happens to be largely above the dolomite. County contractors believed the porous limestone would be enough to stop the waste from rising. They sent the waste stream straight into the EPA classified drinking water of the Floridian aquifer -- water the county might need someday.

The county first discovered the contamination through a monitoring  well in 1994
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
The county first discovered the contamination through a monitoring well in 1994
The county first discovered the contamination through a monitoring  well in 1994
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
The county first discovered the contamination through a monitoring well in 1994

“It's 30 to 50 feet above the cap,” says Donald McNeill. “The average person has no idea what goes on in these [facilities] and the problems they are having.”

Beginning with wells thirteen through seventeen, Youngquist Brothers, a new contractor, came onboard. The 30-year-old Youngquist Brothers company has a large share of the market on drilling deep injection wells in South Florida. It even invented a special drill to do the work. The firm also is a likely contender for fat government contracts if the $7.8 billion Everglades restoration plan passes the House of Representatives. The controversial Everglades package includes $1.6 billion for an ambitious freshwater deep well storage experiment.

The Youngquist Brothers' deep well work with the county began in 1993. The contract gave them $11 million to build five wells. The firm also built four wells at the north facility. The county commission approved four changes to the contract that nearly doubled its value. Reasons for the changes vary and include the water and sewer department's need to quickly build more monitoring wells to meet a state regulatory deadline, which left them no time to rebid the work. Still each quiet extension has robbed residents of an opportunity to examine the vital practice of deep well injection. For work at the south facility, the company has received $17.8 million to date. The fourth and final change order was for $2.5 million to pay for more casing and cement.

Last year it became impossible for the EPA to hide from the reality that deep well injection had polluted underground sources of drinking water in at least three counties, with more to come.

For Miami-Dade it all began in June 1994, with the discovery of ammonia and total kjedahl nitrogen in elevated levels at well number five. Both chemicals are considered indicators for the presence of effluent. The monitoring well covered a deep injection hole at the northwest corner of the facility, which hadn't even begun operation, lending credence to geologist Donald McNeill's contention that the sewage is migrating west. Subsequently the county found significant amounts of ammonia at seven other wells. McNeill believes the county's threshold for ammonia is too high and that in fact contamination is present in more of the wells. An environmental group based in Tallahassee, the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF), sued to halt permits that would allow operation for wells fourteen through seventeen, based on the findings of contamination.

The EPA has ordered the county to perform studies on the situation. Of course while that's being done, the county continues to inject sewage. The EPA has demanded the county figure out where the wastewater is going and why. Suddenly, eighteen years after it first began injecting sewage into the earth, the county must formulate a plan on how to determine the geology of the treatment-facility site. Why this wasn't done adequately prior to drilling the wells nobody can seem to explain. The EPA also has demanded a feasibility report about how to do tracer tests on the sewage to try to follow its path.

The county turned in the reports recently, and the EPA is reviewing them. Agency officials say their responses should be completed by January. It's likely more reports will then be requested. Donald McNeill's findings about how the wells were dug and the county's mistaken geological assumptions arrived at the EPA office in Atlanta two weeks ago. Chief of safe drinking water Carol Tarras refuses to comment on the report until it's studied further.

It almost seems as though the agency is stalling. And in fact, if the EPA gets its way, all the fuss might soon be moot, through a simple stroke of the pen.

Fact: The only back-up aquifer that could provide water in the future is contaminated. For more than twenty years, the feds have green-lighted injecting sewage into the ground as long as it didn't move, which, notes local EPA wastewater disposal director Richard Harvey, happens to be a physical impossibility. “If you inject a gallon of water down a hole,” he reasons, “you have to displace a gallon of water in the formation into which it is discharged.”

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