Miami-Dade County\’s 7,500 miles of sewage lines are in such decrepit shape and rupture so frequently — sometimes spilling raw waste into waterways and Biscayne Bay — that federal environmental regulators are demanding repairs and upgrades that could cost upwards of a billion dollars.
Authorities from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and Florida Department of Environmental Protection met Wednesday morning with leaders at County Hall to begin what figures to be a lengthy and expensive negotiation for Miami-Dade.
John Renfrow, director of Miami-Dade\’s Water and Sewer Department, acknowledged the string of major ruptures that have plagued the county\’s sewage system in recent years, saying the aging network is \”being held together by chewing gum.\” He added he has sought more money to fix the leaks for a long time.
The price tag, though still uncertain, will easily reach the hundreds of millions and could top $1 billion based on past repair projects. The massive overhaul almost certainly will mean rate hikes for hundreds of thousands of residents who have historically paid some of the lowest fees in the state.
\”We would like to think there\’s state and federal assistance,\” said Doug Yoder, Water and Sewer deputy director for regional compliance. \”But this is ultimately going to come back to rates. It will require our rates go up, either to generate cash or to pay bonds back.\”
The federal complaints are sketched out in a 78-page draft consent decree claiming Miami-Dade County has violated sections of the Clean Water Act, along with terms and conditions of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits. The report doesn\’t detail specific failures, but said state and federal environmental protection agencies \”have inspected Miami-Dade\’s WCTS [wastewater collection treatment system] and WWTPs [wastewater treatment plants] and have discovered a number of improper management, operations, and maintenance practices.\”
Miami-Dade has suffered at least three major sewer pipe breaks the past three years, and a recent internal report shows that three sections of 54-inch pipe under the bay, leading to the Virginia Key water treatment plant, are so brittle they could rupture at any time. Renfrow told The Miami Herald earlier this year that a break in that pipe, which carries 25 million gallons of raw sewage each day from Surfside, Miami Beach, and Bal Harbour, could be \”catastrophic.\”
He said it would mean \”you\’d have to close down the beaches and it would be an environmental mess.\”
Aging sewer lines are not a problem unique to Miami-Dade. The EPA estimates there are 240,000 line breaks across the country each year as governments struggle to find revenue to repair sewage systems that in some cases are 100 years old. Fixing the nation\’s sewer line ills could exceed $100 billion, the EPA noted.
Though the EPA wouldn\’t comment directly on the complaint, the agency seems to be focusing on the Virginia Key line and several other pipe lines that have broken the past few years. The county\’s system, built in the 1920s, last underwent major repairs in the 1970s.
The last time Miami-Dade was hit with a consent decree in 1996, it paid a $2 million fine, at the time the largest penalty paid to the EPA for Clean Water Act violations. Unlike the current decree, which is looking at old faulty pipes, the previous probe focused on the county\’s lack of capacity to drain water overflows. In the 1990s, overflows and spills into the Miami River, Biscayne Bay and canals were mostly due to the system\’s inability to handle big rainstorms.
Since then, the county has spent nearly $2 billion upgrading its system, from a $600 million overhaul of the water treatment facility in South Dade, to repairing more than 500 pump stations, to retrofitting thousands of homes with low-flush toilets. Water flow has been reduced by about 12 percent, or close to 100 million gallons a day.
Yet, the federal government maintains, Miami-Dade must spend billions more because over the past decade miles of aging pipeline crisscrossing the county are breaking with increasing frequency.
\”The system is getting old,\” said Bertha Goldenberg, the water and sewer department\’s assistant director.
Adding to the worries, engineers have linked many of the worst breaks to defective pipe built by Interpace, a now-defunct company whose products were widely used in the 1970s. Now, some are failing decades earlier than expected. Over time, steel reinforcement wires inside the concrete pipes have corroded, broken and failed.
Recent breakdowns have occurred in Hialeah — where a 54-inch main break left a giant sinkhole — in Northwest Dade, where a 72-inch pipe burst and leaked almost 20 million gallons of sewage into a canal leading to Biscayne Bay, and in Miami Lakes, where a bus got stuck in a sinkhole after a 12-inch pipe broke. Fixing the system can be taxing, as groups of workers head out at night to one of the county\’s 1,041 pump stations, then insert machines with mini cameras to run through the pipes in search of cracks or tears.
Perhaps the most infamous sewage rupture in recent memory occurred in 2000, when the line from Government Cut to Virginia Key was accidentally ruptured when contractors installing new boatlifts at Miami Beach Marina drilled through it. The resulting gusher of raw sewage cost $2.5 million to repair and the stinking slick closed surrounding waters for days.