Upon closer inspection, the storm drain had a scuzzy layer of greasy scum and reeked of sewage. Worse, investigators realized the drain ultimately discharged into the Biscayne Aquifer, the primary source of water for South Florida. The county cited the North Miami-based company, Joe's Septic, for illegal dumping and operating without a permit.
Two years later, Miami-Dade has now filed a lawsuit, calling the executives of Joe's "reckless" and saying the company has not made good on its promises to operate legally.
"The actions of [Joe's Septic] have resulted in irreparable harm to the environment," the lawsuit says.
According to the county, a driver with Joe's was seen dumping liquid waste into the storm drain February 10 and 11, 2016. The Department of Environmental Resources Management fined both the septic company and the property owner, who was forced to remove 7,500 gallons of sewage-tainted water from the storm-drain system at a cost of $12,000.
Reached by New Times, Roland Bryant, vice president of Joe's, blamed the illegal dumping on a rogue driver who was apparently too lazy to go to the official dump site in Homestead. That driver has since been fired, but the company is left holding the bag, Bryant says.
"We were paying him to go to the dump, and instead of going to the dump because the dump was so far away, he dumped illegally," Bryant says. "We own the company, so the county says we're responsible."
In Miami-Dade, all storm drains trickle out to canals and waterways that eventually discharge into Biscayne Bay or the ocean. Pump-out material or raw sewage can contain heavy metals, E. coli, and other pollutants and bacteria that can cause a multitude of health issues or environmental calamities.
"A lot of these contaminants make people sick with things like rashes, skin irritation, or gastrointestinal problems," says Kelly Cox, staff attorney for Miami Waterkeeper, a local nonprofit that promotes clean water. "The environmental impact is nutrient loading, leading to things like algae blooms or overall ecosystem destruction."
As much as 21 percent of the county is still on a septic system. Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, says it's already difficult enough to safely dispose of septic waste without illegal operators dumping it into drains meant strictly for rainwater.
"Septic tanks in general are a huge problem in Miami-Dade County," Silverstein says. "Even when proper disposal methods are undertaken, they create a lot of pollution, especially when you have septic near canals."
As a result of the illegal dumping, Joe's Septic signed a consent agreement with the county in November 2016, pledging to comply and pay costs and fines of more than $20,000. The new lawsuit accuses the company of violating the terms of the agreement, saying Joe's continued to operate without a permit until December 2017.
As of Wednesday, the president of Joe's Septic, Danny Miller, said he had not yet been served with the suit but told New Times he wants to clear things up with the county.