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Sewergate

In the arcane world of modern hydraulics and flush toilets, there is one widely held assumption: what goes down will stay down. You answer the call of nature, push the handle, and keep on walking. Few care to dwell on what happens next, and fewer still care to talk about it. The unappealing business of human-waste disposal, after all, is the government's responsibility.

Unfortunately, this blind faith has now come back to haunt residents of Dade County. To put it gently, our sewer system has, in recent years, taken to puking its contents all over the place. On a frighteningly regular basis.

It is a chronic condition that makes every body of water in Dade a potential locus of disease, every puddle a possible wellspring of plague. What has happened, essentially, is that the county has gotten too big for its britches and the sewage system simply can't handle it. Dade's complicated maze of underground pipes and treatment facilities, first begun in the 1920s then updated in the 1950s and again in the 1970s, is long overdue for repair and expansion. Every day that passes, and every rain storm that heads our way, carries the threat of disaster.

In modern systems, two distinct labyrinths of pipes separate rain water from raw sewage that needs treatment. But in parts of Dade's system, like those of older U.S. cities, the storm drainage and sewer drainage are combined. In addition, the sewer system suffers from decaying pipes and poor connections that allow rain water to seep in. As a result, as much as a third of the water pumped to sewage treatment plants is actually storm water. Substantial rainfalls often overwhelm the system meant to handle only sewage. The resulting backups and overflows send everything, rain water and raw, untreated human waste, down our streets, into our front yards, across our playgrounds, and onto our beaches.

For too long county officials have failed to put the immense problems of the sewer system a complex and decidely unsexy topic at the top of their administrative agendas. State and federal regulators, either through ignorance or a lack of staffing and funds, have added to the trouble by not being more vigilant. Meanwhile, Dade County's populace wallows in its own filth and its sewer system rushes toward collapse. The overall picture suggests a county government that has recklessly encouraged growth and development at the expense of public health and safety.

Since 1987 there have been eleven massive, recorded sewage spills or overflows resulting from a breakdown, pipe rupture, or human error. Ten million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Miami River on at least three separate occasions, April 9, 1990; May 19, 1991; and October 8, 1991. Another four million gallons discharged into the river on November 22, 1992.

When a pipe collapsed at 167th Street and Collins Avenue on December 9, 1992, about 14,000 gallons of raw sewage gushed into the streets and onto the beach, and an additional 1.5 million gallons was diverted through an abandoned pipe directly into the ocean.

State law mandates that all sewage spills and overflows, whatever the size, be reported to state and local environmental regulatory agencies. But official records reveal that the county's sewer department has failed to report hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of such incidents.

Sewer officials have stated that the overflows occur only during extraordinarily intense rainfalls. But recent studies suggest it only takes four to six inches of rain in a two-day period, a relatively frequent event, to flood pipes and overload pump stations.

No government agency regularly tests Dade's beaches and recreational waterways for the purpose of determining whether they are safe for swimming and fishing. Until May of last year, the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) conducted monthly tests at 63 sites around the county. But HRS abolished the program, purportedly for budgetary reasons, and now tests only in response to "emergency spills."

One sampling of the data recorded by HRS: Between September 1989 and December 1992, researchers collected 99 days' worth of water samples from beaches on Key Biscayne and along the Rickenbacker Causeway. They discovered dangerously high levels of harmful bacteria in the water on 45 of those days; many results indicated the presence of fecal matter. More than half of those results were gathered at times when no sewage spills had been reported.

Dade's local environmental regulatory agency, the Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), tests waters in Biscayne Bay and the rivers and canals that feed into it. But the program is designed to measure general biological patterns, not to determine whether the waters are safe for human contact on a day-to-day basis. Tests are too infrequent and sampling locations too few. Nevertheless, the results are chilling: Data collected in 1990 and 1991 reveal 597 days in which bacteria levels were above state standards, 406 in the Miami River, the remainder at other locations, including Arch Creek, Black Creek, Biscayne Canal, Coral Gables Waterway, Little River, and Biscayne Bay.  

Even with its curtailed testing, HRS posted warning signs on 24 beaches for 23 days in 1992 alone a total of 552 beach postings.

Dade's three sewage treatment plants are operating at or above permitted capacity, and the county's sewer agency, the Water and Sewer Authority Department (WASAD), is woefully behind schedule in repairing and updating its system. A major pipeline carrying sewage to the Virginia Key treatment plant stands as a glaring example of this neglect. About 100 million gallons of effluvium, everything flushed down the toilets or washed down the drains of homes and offices in Central Dade A rushes through the 37-year-old cross-bay pipeline every day, enough to fill the Orange Bowl up to the cheap seats.

For several years county officials have known the precarious condition of the pipeline; engineers have predicted that corrosive gasses in the sewage will eat through the seven-inch-thick pipe by 1997. And that's admittedly an optimistic guess. In spite of the impending doom, bureaucrats spent years doing little else but writing each other memoranda about the problem. The discussion acquired a sense of urgency only last spring, after a critical report issued by a Dade County Grand Jury.

These things are certain: There is no way to turn off the flow through the pipe, and a rupture would be environmentally and economically catastrophic. Biologists predict that in the event of a serious break, the resulting spill would cause fish kills and damage to coral reefs, and would close the bay to commercial and recreational activities for weeks, if not months.

In the boldest action so far, state environmental regulators have forced the county to implement a ban on new sewer hookups in Central Dade, a dramatic move designed to relieve pressure on the cross-bay pipeline and the rest of the system while officials develop a schedule for the pipe's replacement. The moratorium has essentially halted all new construction in the restricted area, which includes the cities of Miami, Hialeah, Hialeah Gardens, Miami Springs, Coral Gables, South Miami, and Sweetwater, and parts of unincorporated Dade. Environmental officials don't expect to lift the restrictions in their entirety until a new cross-bay pipeline is in place. No one expects that to be completed for at least another two and a half years.

These are tense and paranoid times for local, state, and federal officials even remotely responsible for the well-being of the sewer system. Recently, when state regulators finally noticed the ills of Dade's system, they threatened legal action and heavy fines while yanking the county into negotiations for developing a plan to repair and maintain the sewer system. At stake is no less than the economic and environmental health of Dade County. Meanwhile, federal officials are watching closely and have made clear their intention to sue Metro-Dade if the results of the negotiations aren't to their satisfaction.

No one dares hazard a guess at the expected cost of repairing and expanding the system. Officials are simply calling it "The Billion Dollar Question." And you can be sure, everyone in Dade will pay.

William S. McMurphy had had enough. So the 66-year-old retired engineer sat down at his computer on December 7, 1992, and started typing: "Dear Mr. Sloan," began the normally unflappable West Dade resident in his letter to the chief of WASAD, the county's sewer department, "RAW SEWAGE flowing through our backyard is neither a pleasant sight nor smell. This sewage overflows into the canal, POLLUTING both Blue Lake & Westwood Lake. Many people boat, fish, and swim in these lakes, which creates an even greater HEALTH HAZARD.

"This RAW SEWAGE overflows from a manhole in our backyard that has been intermittently backing-up for twenty years.... Every time there is an extra heavy rain the overflow reoccurs. Sometimes it lasts a day or two, or as it did in November, it can last two weeks. We routinely call WASAD, and sometimes DERM, but the problem remains until the water level recedes, and then everyone seems to forget about it."

McMurphy's frustration is shared by citizens across Dade County who have been sloshing through their own and their neighbors' excrement. During every big rainfall, pipes fill up, pump stations break down, and sewage backs up into people's lives: through dozens, if not hundreds, of manholes, toilets, and kitchen sinks around the county. Not to mention through outfall pipes and breaks in the lines. In this way, the problems of the sewage system, buried several feet underground, have bubbled up periodically into the public consciousness.  

It's anyone's guess how many times sewage has leaked out of the system when no one was around to witness it and notify authorities. Florida law, however, requires that Dade sewer officials report all known "abnormal events" to local and state environmental agencies. (The state can seek civil penalties of up to $10,000 per day per violation of its environmental statutes.) But recently officials from the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) began to realize how few spills they'd actually been told about.

As part of their effort to build a legal case against Dade County, several state investigators rummaged through the sewer department's maintenance records one day last month. What they found was alarming: documentation of 363 sewage spills and overflows due to problems in WASAD's lines.

The numbers were even more astonishing considering they only represented the period from March 1992 to January 1993. Overflows were recorded every month during that time. "We didn't even know how complete that file was for that period," says John Patronio, a DER environmental specialist coordinating the case against Dade County. "There may have been other files relating to that period in other boxes. We just went through one box. That's all we had time for." What the documents didn't indicate, though, was the size of the overflows. "It might be five gallons just bubbling up and disappearing down a storm drain," Patronio adds, "or half a million gallons." Only a few people have known about these numbers. They have been WASAD's dirty little secret.

"I don't think we'd report one gallon," explains Robert Ready, WASAD's assistant director for operations and maintenance. "I don't think it would be in danger of public contact. If we have sewer backups or spills that get into any surface water or into storm sewers or the public right of way or a place that can be contacted by the public, we report it." (Contrary to Ready's explanation, many of the 363 "abnormal events" reviewed by the state involved overflows through manholes. And manholes are usually located in public rights-of-way.)

The state's environmental officials were not pleased with their discovery. Says Patronio: "We are considering even a blockage in a small line to be a breakdown worthy of a $10,000 penalty."

And it's a safe bet there have been many more sewage spills, pipe ruptures, overflows, and system breakdowns that state regulators don't know about, because Dade's sewer system is highly decentralized. While WASAD operates most of the county's sewer facilities, including the three principal treatment plants, many cities have created autonomous agencies that own and operate their local sewer systems. Each city could have its own records of sewage spills that were never reported as required by law.

Environmental officials also acknowledge the possibility that a local sewer agency could have been aware of a major system failure or spill and intentionally never reported it. When asked whether he thinks Dade County has reported every known 1000-gallon spill, Vicente Arrebola, a division head at the county's environmental regulatory agency, replied, "I couldn't answer that for you. If I were to venture a guess, I would say no." Spills over 100,000? "That's more in line with what I'd expect would be noticed," he offered, sounding far from confident.

One of the insidious things about loose sewage is that it's slippery stuff, very difficult to trace. When it overflows into a public street, it rushes for the nearest storm drain, which can carry it directly into local canals, lakes, rivers, and Biscayne Bay. So if the sewage doesn't get you on the ground, it may get you in the water. And you might not know until it's too late.

Beyond eyewitness accounts, though, health and environmental officials have only one check against unreported spills: water-quality testing. The most widely used test searches for coliform bacteria; high concentrations of a certain type indicate the presence of large amounts of fecal matter and constitute a violation of state standards for safe human contact.

Years of water-quality tests by local and state authorities have long documented severe pollution in the Miami River, the sorry condition of which has been widely noted by local environmental officials and by a recent Dade County Grand Jury report. But less known publicly is the contamination of the other Dade canals and waterways. "We've already communicated that Arch Creek and Little River and Black Creek are sites where there are violations of coliform bacteria standards," says Susan Markley, chief of DERM's division of natural resources. "Those are locations that somewhere between one-quarter and half the time you might see high coliform readings."However, Assistant County Manager Tony Clemente, who is Dade's representative in the ongoing negotiations with the state, asserts that such high coliform levels do not definitely point to sewage spills. "A lot of variables can affect those readings," he insists. Indeed, animal waste, certain types of groundwater runoff, and sediments can register coliform counts. State officials grudgingly acknowledge this point. "There's a major problem linking the data to the sewer system," admits Paul Phillips, an engineer with the state Department of Environmental Regulation. "But they're in Dade County waters. Therefore they indicate a problem in Dade County proper." And in cases of very high coliform readings, which means most of the time in the Miami River and often in the canals, scientists don't question that they indicate raw sewage.  

Clemente is equally reluctant to leap to conclusions about the excessive coliform readings along the Rickenbacker Causeway and Key Biscayne beaches, numbers he admitted surprised him. The high levels, he says, "Suggest that there's bacteria in the water. The question is whether it's safe to swim in those waters."

At no time have Dade County residents been able to say with absolute certainty that the water they swim in is perfectly safe. Even HRS's former beach testing was no guarantee. The problem lies in the procedure for reporting and verifying high-bacteria water. Under current testing methods, it takes anywhere from two days to a week to process water samples. And HRS guidelines demand that if high coliform content is discovered, scientists must then return for a second consecutive day of high readings before they can declare the water unsafe for human contact and post a warning.

If there had, in fact, been a sewage spill, it could easily drift to another location in those intervening days. "One of my contentions is that if you want to do a proper study, you should do it once every three days if you really want to catch an event, because it can wash out," asserts Thorne Glander, an HRS scientist who used to conduct the water-quality tests at beaches around Dade. "Do I think there are spills occurring that we don't know about? Yes. Can I prove it? No. My [monthly] samples from pre-May 1992 only indicate a point in time at the end of the month. So what happens at the middle of the month? We don't have any records. We found elevated readings that weren't related to publicized spills."

Glander calls the protracted testing procedure "maddening." "I'd find one bad sample on one side of the Rickenbacker Causeway," he recalls. "Then the next day I'd repeat the test and find that the first side was good and the other side was bad. The damn stuff was moving around the island and I can't issue a warning! If I'd gotten out there two days earlier, maybe I'd have seen something. If WASAD reports it, then I can follow the damn thing! But that's if they report it."

Even on days of known hazards, warnings have not always been communicated effectively. One reason is Dade County's anti-bilingual ordinance, which broadly restricts public money from being spent on anything that is not printed or broadcast in English. Warning the non-English-speaking public of possible health hazards associated with sewage spills is among those prohibited expenditures. "I really hate it," says Kate Hale, director of the Metro-Dade Office of Emergency Management. "I would like to go at least trilingual. I find it cumbersome to worry about whether I'm violating an ordinance. I need to be concerned about making sure people have the correct information to protect their lives!"

HRS's Thorne Glander recounts one telling scene after the sewage spill at 167th Street and Collins Avenue this past December. The spill forced the closure of the beaches in that area for several days. "I took a picture of two tourists running down the beach in sewage," he says. "They didn't understand English and I went, 'Caca!' and they jumped. The point is that advisories don't get to everyone."

This incomplete notification regarding known health hazards applies especially to areas of chronic sewage contamination. "If I were giving a recommendation to the department," offers DERM's Susan Markley, "I would recommend that certain areas should be posted as being generally contaminated, say twenty percent of the time, and are not suitable for recreation. The Miami River, for instance, should be posted all the time."

Ineffective warnings, apparent failures in reporting all sewage spills, an absence of routine water testing, deterioration of the sewer system generally and potential catastrophe from a rupture of the cross-bay pipeline in particular if all this sounds like official neglect of major proportions, it only foreshadows the enormous costs to come.

Residents have already begun to pay for Dade's lethargy under the January 27 ban on new sewers, which was instigated by state regulators and is intended to relieve pressure on the cross-bay pipeline and the rest of the system. Under the order, people building a new structure in the restricted area (which includes most of Central Dade and a slice of Northeast Dade) must install a septic tank or build their own sewage plant. In many cases, these options aren't feasible: septic tanks can't process the waste from large buildings and private treatment plants are extremely expensive.  

The order is expected to have a dramatic impact on economic development in the region, particularly in the area west of the airport, where hundreds of acres have been purchased for new warehouses. "Real estate activity had begun to pick up in Dade County," notes Tom Dixon, a real estate appraiser for the firm Dixon & Friedman. "The moratorium, though, has put it on hold. Who wants to buy a piece of property and speculate whether it's going to be six months, a year, or two years before you can do something with it? If the moratorium continues beyond another three months, then it's going to be devastating." Local government officials say they haven't yet begun to feel pressure from developers to lift the moratorium, but they expect it to begin in force any day now.

John Renfrow, director of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), says that over time the boundaries of the moratorium will shift. The first area to be removed, he predicts, will be the northeast section of Dade, sometime within the next six to eight months. An entire lifting of the moratorium, he says, is dependent on the completion of the cross-bay pipeline. And no one expects that to be completed before August 1995.

Nothing, though, will translate to an individual's wallet with the force of sewer-rate hikes. And Dade taxpayers should expect them to be sizable. Assistant County Manager Tony Clemente estimates rises "in excess of ten percent a year" for the next five years.

"That's a very modest estimate," admits J centsse L centspez, chief of DERM's wastewater section. "It depends how fast you want to get out of the hole. To get out of the hole you have to spend money. I wouldn't be surprised if our rates double within five years." Other county officials expect rates to triple within the next five to ten years.

Dade's sewer rates, a frequent source of citizen complaints, have been kept low relative to others around the nation. (Rate hikes, along with the rest of the sewer authority's budget, must be approved by the county commission.) County figures show the average base water and sewer bill is $29.58 per month for homeowners who use sewers maintained by WASAD. That compares to Tampa's $35.40, Broward County's $42.78, Philadelphia's $45.70, San Francisco's $50.94, and Houston's $65.72.

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.

As for poor connections and decaying pipes, Assistant County Manager Tony Clemente says Dade "really needs to re-evaluate the standards for sewer construction" in the same way it's re-evaluating other construction standards after Hurricane Andrew.

And acknowledging the need for water-quality testing, the county is about to commence a three-month trial of weekly sampling of coastal waters. The trial tests, though, will only occur along the Rickenbacker Causeway, not any other bathing beaches. In addition, HRS, environmental agencies, and the county's sewer department are coordinating emergency-spill response plans to ensure more prompt treatment and faster notification to the public.

But these initial steps may not be enough to avert a federal lawsuit. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently requested from the county reams of information regarding recent sewage spills and the cross-bay pipeline. Such requests often are precursors to legal action, and the federal government is able to levy steep fines. The demand for documents has sent chills through Dade County government. "It makes me nervous because of what the final outcome might be," confides DERM's J centsse L centspez. "They love the big fish. An enforcement action here would be an example for the little ones."

"We take this very seriously when you've got the kinds of overflows that have been happening in Dade County," says W. Ray Cunningham, director of the EPA's water management division in Atlanta. "We have to determine that there isn't an iceberg under this."  

Like the proverbial submerged iceberg, Dade's sewer crisis has remained out of the public eye, and local officials apparently had hoped to keep it that way. But the danger is now in full view. "There's greater public awareness of this, and we need some time while we can develop plans," pleads Tony Clemente. "We need to tell the community this thing will be solved." Assuaging the electorate is one thing, and mollifying angry federal officials is another. But mastering time is something else again.


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