In July 2019, a contractor called Calea Corporation struck a wastewater pipe while drilling at Fifth Street and Michigan Avenue in Miami Beach, causing a leak of 780,000 gallons of untreated wastewater over two days.
Eight months later, in March 2020, contractor A.C. Schultes of Florida punctured another wastewater pipe while drilling a well at 1665 Michigan Ave., unleashing 875,000 gallons of wastewater. The city diverted the flow, but the change in pressure caused more main breaks and sewage discharges. One leak dumped more than 20 million gallons of sewage into Miami Beach waterways over 18 days. A second leak released 665,000 gallons over two days.
Earlier this month, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) filed a lawsuit against the City of Miami Beach and the two contractors over those sewer breaks and others between July 2019 and March 2020. The mishaps collectively discharged nearly 1.7 million gallons of untreated wastewater into Biscayne Bay. (The blog RE:MiamiBeach first reported on the lawsuit.)
The lawsuit says Miami Beach's wastewater system has experienced 35 "unauthorized discharges" of sewage since January 2019 and accuses the city and contractors of violating state laws about waste discharges, pollution, and water-quality standards.
Miami Beach's director of public works, Roy Coley, told New Times in an email that the city shouldn't be blamed for spills caused by private contractors.
"The City had to devote significant resources to respond to those spills and has made significant investments in upgrading its sewer infrastructure," Coley wrote. "We are disappointed that the FDEP has decided to file a lawsuit against the City instead of helping to solve the problem."
(Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber told the Miami Herald he believes the lawsuit is "politically motivated" and stems from his criticism of Gov. Ron DeSantis' response to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
In the case of the July 2019 leak, Calea Corporation was working for Crown Castle, a phone and internet infrastructure provider. A Crown Castle spokesman says Crown Castle reached out to the city to resolve the pipe break and paid for the damage. New Times was unable to reach Calea Corporation's owner for comment.
A.C. Schultes of Florida was contracted by Florida Power & Light (FPL) to work on a drainage well when the March 2020 sewage spill took place. Reached by phone this week, the contractor declined to comment. FPL did not respond to an email from New Times.
The state is seeking fines for the contractors and civil penalties up to $750,000 for the city. The lawsuit also proposes that Miami Beach develop a comprehensive emergency plan for future sewage leaks and "an expeditious repair and rehabilitation program" for the city's wastewater system.
The DEP claims that without those changes, "the discharges of untreated wastewater from the system will continue to... present the threat of irreparable injury to human health, waters, and property, including animal, plant, and aquatic life of the state."
While the DEP points the finger at Miami Beach and Miami Beach points the finger at the private contractors, there's no question that the larger problem is aging sewage systems. Coley, Miami Beach's director of public works, told WLRN in March that some of the city's pipes are 50 to 80 years old.
In 2014, Miami-Dade County entered into a consent decree with the state and federal government to make $1.6 billion in improvements to the county's wastewater collection and treatment system.
While the county has made some improvements, sewage overflows continue to occur. According to a status report from September 2020, Miami-Dade had 63 sewage overflows between January 1 and June 30 of this year. Those overflows had a combined volume of more than 2.4 million gallons of leaked sewage.
Another major problem is that Biscayne Bay is reaching an ecological breaking point. Photos of this past summer's fish kills and videos of puffer fish gasping for air served as an urgent reminder of that.
Rachel Silverstein, executive director of the Miami Waterkeeper, says sewage spills are one of the top sources of pollution in the bay.
"We need infrastructure investments to stop chronic sewage leaks that happen all over the county," she says.
Sewage infrastructure improvements would also make South Florida more prepared for sea-level rise, Silverstein says. Rising seas, or even heavy rain, make water tables rise and place more pressure on sewage pipes. Water rushes through cracks in the pipes and overburdens them.
"We have major issues because a lot of sewage infrastructure is beyond its useful life," Silverstein says. "It's over 50 years old, it's supposed to be replaced, and it hasn't been. It's described as antique, and that's not what you want your sewage system to be. The age of the system, combined with pressure of sea-level rise, overwhelms the system. We have a very fragile, tenuous system that we're dealing with here in Miami."
Silverstein says that while there are certainly issues with contractors rupturing pipes and causing sewage spills, the bigger issue is aging sewage infrastructure.
"That's what needs to be focused on and replaced," she says.
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