We Don't Swim in Your Toilet

This past Easter weekend delivered just about everything one would expect from South Florida: blue skies, perfect weather, warm beaches, plenty of tourists. The only thing markedly unusual was the water. On Good Friday, a high-pressure sewage pipe ruptured on North River Drive in downtown Miami and spewed a geyser of raw sewage into the surrounding neighborhood. An estimated 25 million gallons spilled or overflowed through emergency outfall pipes into the Miami River and Biscayne Bay, enough to fill the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, more than 24 times. The accident was twice as large as any other reported spill in Dade's history.

The break immediately posed a serious public-health risk in the waters between the Julia Tuttle and Rickenbacker causeways. That afternoon several county and state agencies issued health advisories that warned people to stay away from the water. Those bulletins were trumpeted across the radio band and television dial, and the Miami Herald prominently displayed a related story on the front page of Saturday's edition. But the legions of people who chose to swim, fish, or boat in Biscayne Bay's contaminated waters over the weekend simply ignored the warnings, or never were aware of them.

Beachgoers and boaters who weren't tuned to a radio or TV station, or didn't see a newspaper, had little way of learning about the disaster. Dade's public officials didn't help A they failed to post health-warning signs along contaminated beaches and waterways. Apart from easily overlooked notices at the entrance to Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, no other warnings were mounted in the recreational areas of Key Biscayne and the Rickenbacker Causeway, at marinas, or along the Miami River.

In some cases, it came down to people like Susan Markley, Dade's chief biologist, to spread the news by word-of-mouth. She was out in a boat taking water samples the day after the spill, at the same time warning people to avoid contact with the water. "If we ever saw anybody jet skiing, fishing, or swimming inside the advisory area, we advised them," says Markley, chief of the division of environmental resources at the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management. "A fraction appreciated the information and appeared to move to another area. But a large portion of people just ignored us. Maybe they thought we were just hassling them. I guess some people must imagine that if the water was contaminated, they could tell by looking at it. It's not all that obvious most of the time." Her colleagues issued the same warnings while sampling the water on Sunday.

Lifeguards at Crandon Park shooed people out of the water during the weekend, and a top official from the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) single-handedly strolled the beaches of the Rickenbacker Causeway on Saturday, telling people to get out of the water. Easter Sunday, however, no officials and no signs warned bathers to keep out of the water along the Rickenbacker's popular beaches.

No county or state agency will accept blame for failing to post warnings following Dade's biggest sewage blowout. "Postings are not our responsibility," insists Laurie Rubiner, spokeswoman for HRS. "I think you need to talk to the county." But Dade's environmental and sewer officials also deny it was their job.

Just last month, ironically, a multiagency task force created a contingency plan for sewage overflows. The plan, which the county hasn't officially adopted, orders the sewer authority responsible for an overflow to post "health hazard" signs along the shoreline of affected waters. "Dade County A [the Water and Sewer Authority Department] in particular A participated in the development of the contingency plan," says Thomas Singleton, a state water-management official and coordinator of the task force. "I hoped that they would follow the procedures outlined in the plan in the most recent event. But clearly postings were not done."

Robert Ready, the sewer department's assistant director, insists that posting is not his department's responsibility until the plan is officially adopted. Furthermore, he adds, the signs haven't yet been manufactured.

In another display of poor interagency coordination, the state HRS laboratory that normally processes water quality samples to test for contamination was understaffed Saturday and closed on Sunday. County officials were forced to send some of their water samples taken Saturday A and all of the samples taken Sunday A to a private laboratory in Broward County. Says HRS spokeswoman Rubiner in explaining the Sunday lab closing: "It was Easter."

County officials still don't know the dimensions of the spill. According to county biologist Markley, test results collected by her department suggest there was a second, unreported spill further north, on Little River, shortly after the pipe rupture in downtown Miami. "We had one sampling station up there, near the mouth of Little River, and the data was extremely high, much higher than typical," she says. "It suggests that there was a separate sewage discharge there." Several top supervisors with Dade's Water and Sewer Authority Department (WASAD) say they have no knowledge of a separate spill or system failure that weekend.

While officials bungled their response to Good Friday's sewer accident, Dade's residents and visitors can consider themselves lucky it wasn't something much larger A like a rupture of the cross-bay pipeline. For years county officials have known about the decay of the 37-year-old pipeline, which carries 100 million gallons of sewage every day to the Virginia Key treatment plant. Two other pipes of the same design and age have already ruptured, and engineers predict the 72-inch cross-bay pipe won't last far beyond 1996.

Fortunately the county sewer authority has developed a contingency plan specifically for response to a cross-bay pipe break. It details the procedure for notifying the public, locating and repairing the break, and containing and cleaning up the spill. But despite these measures, officials acknowledge that a pipe rupture would be an environmental and economic disaster. In the event of a break, the contingency plan orders sewer officials to divert sewage to Dade's two other treatment plants. But those systems are already operating above capacity and can't handle much more sewage. Therefore sewer officials would be forced to dump raw sewage into the Miami River and Biscayne Bay until repairs are made to the cross-bay pipeline. And that could take weeks, if not months.

WASAD recently applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to lay a new pipeline across the bay. The pipe would run from SW 15th Road off Brickell Avenue, southeast across the bay, intersecting with the Rickenbacker Causeway at the Miami Marine Stadium. At that point it would continue underground alongside the causeway, then turn northeast onto the service road that leads to the Virginia Key treatment plant. County officials estimate the plan would destroy 3.3 acres of seagrass beds and half an acre of mangroves.

The proposed route surprised some officials at the county's environmental regulatory agency, who two years ago had recommended a longer but less environmentally damaging route along the Rickenbacker Causeway. WASAD officials had appeared to embrace that option. Even though the linear distance of WASAD's preferred path is shorter than the other one, it may elicit more legal challenges from environmental groups and may take longer to secure necessary permits. "We felt that changing the location that was agreed upon two years ago doesn't help in expediting the process," confided one county environmental official who requested anonymity. "We don't have time to be looking at alternatives now. We can't study this for another three years."

Indeed, there is no time for delay, especially in light of the Easter weekend spill, which emphasized the fragility of Dade's woefully outdated and decrepit sewer system. Since the accident, several county and state officials have warned that the system is probably in far worse shape than anyone ever imagined. As of late last week officials had no explanation for the rupture at NW Fourth Street and North River Drive. Sewer engineers know that a power failure occurred in the system Friday morning, possibly causing a pressure surge in the pipeline. The surge may have blown off a bolted cast-iron cap, designed for pipe access during construction. But officials say they didn't see any signs of wear or decay at the point of rupture. A metallurgist is examining the pipe.

Most alarming to sewer and environmental officials, though, is the fact that several more such cast-iron caps are located in the central sewer district, six of them underwater along the cross-bay pipeline. Sewer administrators admit that the recent accident has raised the possibility that a similar rupture could occur at any time. And such a blow could make the Good Friday spill look like a water fountain next to Old Faithful.

Several officials warn that the system is probably in far worse shape than ever imagined.


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