The Million-Dollar Flush

On Tuesday, February 7, Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department director Anthony Clemente will stand before the Dade County Commission and present this good news: County negotiators have settled the nineteen-month-old federal lawsuit concerning Dade's decrepit sewer system. But before the commissioners leap up, join arms, and dance merrily, they may want to consider this attendant bit of bad news: The settlement is going to cost the county hundreds of millions of dollars, and the system is years away from full repair.

The federal government filed the suit in June 1993, seeking to stop the illegal discharge of raw sewage into Dade's streets and waterways and to expedite the replacement of a decaying cross-bay pipeline that carried wastewater to the treatment plant on Virginia Key. State officials already had Metro in a headlock regarding the same issues. Mediation between the state and the county during the first half of 1993 produced an agreement on rehabilitating and expanding the county's sewage system and on repairing the cross-bay pipeline. The state also forced Metro to undertake $2,355,000 worth of water-conservation and waste water-reuse programs.

But despite the state's efforts, federal officials were set on extracting their own pound of flesh. After several months of periodic closed-doors negotiations, on December 2, 1993, federal and county officials emerged with the so-called first partial consent decree, which laid out a timetable for the rapid completion of the cross-bay pipeline. The head-butting continued throughout the spring in an effort to design a program for solving the system's other problems and to settle on a monetary penalty for all the instances of illegal sewage discharges.

But this past summer, when negotiations appeared to hit an impasse, a federal judge set trial for March 20, 1995, and both sides began preparations, scheduling depositions and lining up expert witnesses from around the nation. At one point during the fall, the U.S. Attorney's Office produced a 66-page list of sewage overflows compiled from a review of the county's own records. The list detailed more than 2200 incidences dating from August 1981 to October 1994, about 2000 of which occurred from 1991 to 1993. In a memo submitted to the court, a federal prosecutor maintained that many of the overflows resulted in "direct discharge of untreated wastewater" to streets and waterways around Dade. He also noted that his tally didn't represent anywhere near a complete count, owing to the fact that there were many overflows the county didn't identify in its records.

"Negotiations are still going on but at an intensity that is minor compared to before," Clemente commented last month, explaining that both sides had reached agreement regarding monetary penalties and remedies to the system's ills. But, Clemente added, federal and county officials disagreed about the amount of money Metro would have to deposit directly into the U.S. Treasury versus the amount of "in-kind" expenditures it would make in the form of local environmental projects. "We're very flexible paying a fine that ends up benefiting the community," he said. "We're not interested in reducing the national debt."

Perhaps it was the seasonal cheer and the infusion of holiday spirit, but amid all the pretrial bravado and chest-thumping, the sides experienced a breakthrough during end-of-the-year negotiations. On January 4, they produced a draft of the "second and final partial consent decree." The court-enforceable agreement calls for a whopping two-million-dollar cash payment directly to federal coffers, and an additional five million dollars in so-called supplementary environmental projects, including the implementation of water-conservation and wastewater-reuse programs. (The fine is the largest penalty ever levied against a municipality in a federal Clean Water Act case.)

The lengthy agreement also lays out in microscopic detail an array of programs to evaluate, repair, and expand the aged sewer system, along with hefty fines for noncompliance. Clemente warns that the county will probably remain under court supervision for the next seven years and that it will cost $100 to $200 million per year in additional capital expenditures to implement the rehabilitation programs. "The sewer crisis is over," Clemente now declares, "but the program to assure the crisis doesn't happen again and to honor the commitments we made to the state and federal government will take several years to complete."

As for the source of those millions in penalties and overhaul costs, Clemente says the money will come from Water and Sewer Department revenues, as well as, he hopes, grants. Already, though, the insidious no-new-fees cry has begun. On January 6, for instance, Clemente presented the draft agreement to the county commission's committee on construction, development, and utilities. (The agreement still must be ratified by the full commission, high-level federal officials, and a federal judge before it takes effect.) At the committee meeting, Commissioner Natacha Millan beseeched Clemente not to increase residents' water and sewage bills. "We need to not only conserve water, but to conserve their pockets," she pleaded, notwithstanding the fact that for years political pressure suppressed water and sewer rates and kept them low relative to other cities around the nation, while Dade's decaying sewer system rushed toward collapse.

Assuming everyone signs off on the settlement agreement, Metro's environmental litigation woes may still be far from over: U.S. environmental officials say they have discovered raw sewage leaking into the groundwater in South Dade. Environmental Protection Agency investigators allege that this may have been happening for as long as four years at the South District Wastewater Treatment Plant.

At that facility, treated wastewater is disposed of by injecting it into deep wells that reach 3000 feet into the earth's boulder zone. Federal regulators, however, say the Water and Sewer Department has been pumping untreated or insufficiently treated sewage into the well. As a result of this pumping operation, the regulators contend, the sewage has leaked into the Floridan Aquifer, a brackish groundwater source 1500 feet above the boulder zone.

Federal officials also contend that untreated or partially treated sewage has been percolating from holding ponds around the facility into the Biscayne Aquifer, Dade's primary source of drinking water. (The ponds are designed to store treated wastewater in case a power failure temporarily shuts down the deep-injection wells.) This past month the EPA sent a letter to Metro-Dade warning that the agency may file a separate lawsuit in the matter.

Federal officials won't comment on the notice. Clemente admits there may have been a time when equipment malfunction during a period of heavy flow caused partially treated sewage to be released into the holding ponds. But he says he knows of no instance of untreated sewage being sent to the ponds. Any possible contamination to the Biscayne Aquifer, Clemente adds, would pose no threat to the public health because the holding ponds aren't near any drinking-water wells.

As for the claim that the Water and Sewer Department is sending raw or partially treated sewage into the deep-injection wells, Clemente says nine months ago his engineers detected ammonia in the Floridan Aquifer -- a possible indicator of treated effluent. While the sewer director says he's not certain where the ammonia came from or whether it was caused by sewage, engineers believe effluent deposited in the boulder zone may have leaked back up a nearby monitoring well, through a hole in the pipe, and into the Floridan Aquifer. Ever since the ammonia was discovered, Clemente says, Metro has been waiting for state approval to seal off the suspect well.

"I don't know if [the federal officials] have any information that we don't have," Clemente says. "We've been working on this with consultants for almost a year. Again, these are allegations, and regulatory agencies, when they come at you, come at you with a lot of things.

"I'm more concerned about the reaction of the feds and the state than the actual situation," Clemente continues. "I don't think the situation is that critical compared to the other situations we're dealing with.


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