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

Deep Well Infection

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.

The South District Wastewater Treatment Plant in South Miami-Dade is largely a circle of holes on more than 450 acres. At each hole all one can see is a massive pipe that bores straight into the ground. Under pressure, every day, about 80,000 gallons of lightly treated sewage are sent shooting down thirteen of the seventeen pipes. On each concrete pad, near the pipe, is a separate well the county uses to monitor whether the aquifer is contaminated. It is this state-enforced inspection that uncovered signs of the problem back in 1994. Today, on the eve of a possible drought in South Florida, a majority of the monitoring wells at the South Miami-Dade plant show signs of chemicals that indicate sewage in the Floridian aquifer -- the county's reserve source of drinking water.

Ironically enough, deep well injection began in 1972, with passage of the Federal Clean Water Act. The law mandated new stringent water-quality standards for local bodies of water. Until then small treatment plants handled sewage for the ever-growing subdivisions. After light treatment the plants dumped the sewage into the canals, which proved disastrous for South Florida's sensitive tourist gems, Biscayne Bay and the Everglades.

The EPA knew local governments would never be able to comply with the new water-quality standards without federal support. The Clean Water Act included a construction grants program, but to get the money, the county had to decide on a plan that would be the cheapest environmentally acceptable wastewater disposal method. It came up with two options: Send it out to sea or inject it into the earth through wells.

The idea of shooting pressurized wastewater thousands of feet underground had gained currency among certain geologists and consulting firms. They based their idea on South Florida's unique geology. Starting roughly 2500 feet beneath the surface of Southeast Florida is an area commonly known as the “boulder zone.” This layer is open and cavernous. Directly above it is a slab of dolomite about fifteen feet thick that is relatively nonporous.

Above the dolomite is the upper Floridian aquifer, at about 2000 feet. It's composed of different kinds of limestone. Stretching about 1500 feet, it's much more porous than the dolomite. While the water found here is too salty to drink, it is still classified as drinkable because it's easily cleaned and meets the EPA standards for low salt content. Above the upper Floridian is another confining layer, which is made of tight sand and clay. Nobody knows the size of this layer or whether it's full of fractures. Finally, above that is one of South Florida's most precious resources, the Biscayne aquifer, from which the county currently draws its drinking water.

The geologists and consultants proposed to inject the sewage into the boulder zone, beneath the lowest confining layer that stretches at least to Palm Beach, although nobody really knows how far for sure. Water in the boulder zone is too salty to qualify as drinkable. The national consulting firm CH2M Hill theorized that it would take the sewage hundreds of years to travel out of the boulder zone. In fact CH2M Hill estimated it would be 7000 years before it made it out to sea. The firm did acknowledge it might migrate to the upper Floridian aquifer and estimated it would take 343 years to penetrate the first confining layer. When the sewage surfaced deep in the ocean or in the aquifer, time would have purified it, so the explanation went.

Their theories depended largely on guesswork. The consultants formed conclusions without the aid of much geological research, and no one has ever seen the boulder zone. Yet government regulatory agencies signed off on their hypothesis.

Injecting the sewage also complied with the EPA's mandate for a cheap solution. The county could place a couple of wells on as little as one acre of land. Each well would cost less than a million dollars to build.

The EPA decided to approve deep well injection as the preferred option. But agency officials failed to recognize how fast the population would grow and how much sewage would end up injected as a result of their decision. “When we were really talking about underground injection, we weren't looking at a hundred million gallons a day,” remembers Richard Harvey, director of the EPA's South Florida Water Management Division. Harvey worked for the state environmental agency at the time. He says the EPA and the state assumed by the year 2000 there would only be a few million people in Southeast Florida, creating at most 20 million gallons of wastewater daily.

In any event the cheap way to dispose of waste encouraged unfettered development. Today, instead of the EPA's initial calculations, about five million people are responsible for about 279 million gallons per day of injected sewage.

Besides underestimating how much waste would be shot underground, government officials made two other faulty assumptions: that Miami-Dade County would drill the wells properly and that the confining layer would truly cap the wastewater. They were wrong on both counts.

Donald McNeill knows it's hard to make geology interesting to non-aficionados. So when the research scientist (although he works for the University of Miami, his investigation of deep wells is independent of the school) wants an audience to understand what separates their sewage from their drinking water, he brings out props. First he passes around a heavy stone pulled from the earth in Broward County. This is a fragment of the confining dolomite layer just above the boulder zone. The piece is heavy, with a beige to brown color. He places it on a table and pours water over it. The water pools but does not permeate the stone. Then he passes out a lighter grayish rock, a sample of the kind that sits above the dolomite. When he tries the water trick, the liquid seeps through the stone.

The limestone layer above the dolomite is not nearly as effective a barrier as county officials seem to believe it to be, argues McNeill. In fact McNeill has a poor view of the county's geological assessments in general and says evidence of its mistakes can be found in its own information. For instance the county didn't recognize the dolomite was the key to keeping the sewage down below. While drilling, the county's contractor Alsay, Inc., punctured the dolomite and a stream of water shot up about 25 feet. The county concluded the dolomite was porous. McNeill believes the pressure from trapped water underneath the dolomite caused the stream to spurt.

“They have made some fundamental faulty geologic estimations,” he says. “It's surprising they don't look closer at their own data.”

Part of the reason may be that the county no longer has possession of it. McNeill says when he asked for logs that would give more precise detail of the geology at the South Miami-Dade deep well injection facility, he was told the county had lost the information during Hurricane Andrew. Luckily the United States Geological Survey had a copy of the logs.

The sewage the county is injecting is less salty than the water in either the boulder zone or the Floridian aquifer. The fresher water has a natural inclination to form a bubble and rise. After McNeill studied the logs, he concluded the lower confining layer sloped upward to the west. He surmised that, as the water rose it would move west, following the slope, not east. This theory jibes with where the county has found contamination at the site.

County officials and their consultants sold the public the idea that the wastewater would slowly make its way to the east and out into the ocean. They told the state environmental regulatory agency that after twenty years of injecting sewage at an average of 50 million gallons per day, the lake of waste would stretch out 8.6 miles underground, heading toward the sea. Now everybody from the county to the federal government admits they have no idea how far it has spread and in what direction. There are no monitoring wells outside the South Miami-Dade facility site, so it's impossible to know the true extent of the sewage plume.

The county has its deep injection wells divided between two facilities. The one in the north of the county only has four wells, none of which are currently operating. Down at the South Miami-Dade facility, there are seventeen wells, of which all but four are being used. By the county's own admission, it has detected contamination of the drinking water in at least seven of the wells. The Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department can't explain why.

What is known is that signs of wastewater took 11 years to reach the aquifer -- 332 years earlier than predicted. “It seems to be traveling 180 degrees different from what they projected,” McNeill notes.

He believes the water and sewer department could have avoided both its misplaced overconfidence about the impermeability of the lower confining layer and its ignorance of the geological landscape if the department had conducted more studies prior to risking the county's drinking water. It also could have invited other scientists to analyze the data in a formal peer review. Although geologists from the federal U.S. Geological Survey sit on an advisory committee for the county, they don't generally have the time to do a thorough investigation like a proper and impartial scientific peer review would.

More disturbing perhaps than the erroneous assumptions the county made is McNeill's assertion that the water and sewer department failed to follow even its own guidelines for digging the wells. It appears the department didn't even get underneath the confining layer, because county geologists failed to recognize where it was.

Recognizing that they could have a public-relations disaster on their hands, Florida's utilities have endeavored to explain how the deep well process works. The utilities have become reliant on deep well injection technology and are fighting like hell to avoid being forced to stop. They have hired expensive PR firms, such as Wragg & Casas, the group that helps to sell corporate welfare on a mammoth scale for Big Sugar. The utilities, in conjunction with the main company that builds deep injection wells, Youngquist Brothers out of Fort Myers, have written countless editorials and distributed fact sheets on how they dig the wells.

They begin with a big hole, which gets narrower the deeper it goes. The first opening is typically 58.5 inches in diameter, drilled down to the base of the Biscayne aquifer, usually a depth of about 260 feet. Next, a steel pipe, one-half-inch thick and 50 inches in diameter, is lowered into the cavity. Sulfate-resistant cement is pumped down to encase the entire length of the pipe, and then to seal it to the surrounding rock. Concrete is used in this manner for all the stages. The pipes get smaller in three successive stages, dropping first to 1000 feet, then 2300, and finally into the boulder zone. After that no more pipes are used, and the well becomes an open hole where the sewage pours into the cavernous formation.

“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.

“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.”

Now the sewage has moved directly into the aquifer, and though it's not the primary one, that's small solace after a few years of drought. But the wastewater hasn't stopped moving. It wants to rise. County geologist Bertha Goldenberg of the Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department cannot explain where it's going or what happened to it. Will it seep into the sea and poison offshore marine life? Could it make it to the main drinking-water supply?

Facing alarming questions without satisfactory answers, the EPA had to respond. Unsurprisingly the agency decided not to shut down deep well injection in Florida; it is fearful of the lawsuits and howls of pain from taxpayers forced to sop up billions in costs for the agency's errors. Following the well-worn precept, “It's not what's legal, it's what can be legalized,' the EPA opted to alter the rules and allow for some contamination of underground sources of drinking water. Shit happens.

Currently the agency is taking public comment on two different alternatives for its rule change. Option number one requires that all sewage sent into the earth be given what the EPA calls “advanced treatment.” This high-level cleansing process would make the wastewater going into the aquifer clean enough to qualify for national drinking-water standards.

This option has both environmentalists and utilities enraged. Advanced treatment does not come cheap, and no one -- from utilities on down the line -- wants to pay. “What we're saying is this technology [deep well] is, has been, and continues to be more than viable,” insists Lisa Maxwell, a spokesperson for the Builders Association of South Florida, whose 700 members cover South Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties. “It happens to be sound, so to limit its use or to decree additional requirements that cause hardship on local utilities and utility departments really is not the way to go about this.”

Laughing, she promises hefty sewer bills will be needed if the EPA forces a multibillion-dollar retooling effort.

Environmentalists are no less incensed that the EPA is backtracking on the no-migration rule, after its safety assurances smoothed the way for this whole crisis in the first place. They believe current drinking-water laws aren't tough enough, and advanced treatment won't do the job. Of the 15,000 chemicals in highest use, less than 22 percent of them have undergone minimal tests for toxicity, points out Suzi Ruhl, president of the environmental group LEAF.

People are going to pay regardless, believes Ruhl, whether it's through illness or higher sewer bills. What particularly bothers her about the EPA's proposed change is that it doesn't give an incentive to treat and reuse the wastewater for non-drinking purposes, like watering golf courses. She believes such reuse is an important solution to dealing with the problem.

Option number two would allow the utilities to continue injecting as they have in the past, but to monitor the situation more closely. If they detect a health risk, they would be forced to stop. Although utilities and builders might find this more agreeable, they still are complaining it will be too expensive. Environmentalists argue that not only will the aquifer have to be treated by the spread of the sewage, but that left alone, it could reach the primary source of drinking water, the Biscayne aquifer.

It's Monday, September 25. At a conference room in the Sheraton Biscayne Bay on Brickell Avenue, Alan Farago of the Sierra Club and Suzi Ruhl, president of LEAF, sell their fear of deep well injection to representatives of environmental groups and the foundations that fund them. Farago wants the organizations to join his crusade and help bankroll it.

Conspicuously absent is any staff from the National Audubon Society, arguably the wealthiest and most politically connected environmental organization in South Florida. Ruhl invited them. Audubon has a suite of offices directly across the street from the hotel and a staff of sixteen. Mark Kraus, National Audubon's deputy director for its Florida office, says it was not a snub; a hydrologist for the organization was slated to attend but fell ill. Some at the meeting suspect Audubon wants to avoid confronting problems with deep well injection. Audubon has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for the $7.8 billion Everglades restoration proposal. In order for it to work, the plan relies heavily on deep well injection technology -- and the same geological theories that might have failed with wastewater disposal.

A presentation to the assembled group by LEAF consultant Sydney Bacchus is long on enthusiasm and short on real data. Pictures of turtles with ghastly tumors are presented to shock, but there is no hard data to link them to deep well injection sewage. Talk of zones offshore, where leaking sewage has killed all marine life, must be investigated further before being passed off as a smoking gun. It's assertions such as these that help industry groups effectively dismiss LEAF as fearmongers. “They made a concerted effort to approach the EPA and scare them,” complains builders rep Lisa Maxwell.

On an issue as vital as this, where thorough science clearly is lacking and politics holds sway, both sides are actively trying to get the attention of the federal and state government any way they can. Public comment on the new EPA rule will be open until the end of October. LEAF's challenge to keep the water and sewer department from operating the last four wells at the South Miami-Dade facility is scheduled for December.

Ultimately the future of deep well injection will end up in the courts. It's just a matter of who sues first. “I'm hearing noise out there that the utility boys are going to sue us,” says the EPA's Richard Harvey.

Ruhl says environmentalists are ready. She believes both politicians and bureaucrats have failed the public. “The entire process was dishonest,” she says. “It will definitely end up in court; there's no question of that.”

Given the huge economic and public health interests at stake, leaving deep well injection's fate to impartial judges and juries might be the only way to resolve the issue. “Down here, sometimes that's what it takes to move things along,” notes Harvey.


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