Miami-Dade County

Judge wants more oversight, tougher penalties for Miami-Dade sewer mandate

A Miami federal judge on Friday asked for closer oversight and larger penalties in a $1.6 billion legal settlement over the county’s crumbling sewer pipes.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno did not accept or reject the settlement, known as a consent decree, between Miami-Dade County and the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Instead, Moreno suggested the county and federal governments make two revisions to the agreement “that would enhance the Court’s confidence” that Miami-Dade will comply with the U.S. Clean Water Act.

The judge recommended the appointment of a special master to ensure that the sewer repairs are made, and that funding for the fixes does not get deviated to non-environmental projects. He also suggested increasing the penalties against the county if it fails to upgrade the pipes.

“Court supervision, through a Special Master, and heftier penalties for non-compliance would assist the Court in enforcing the settlement entered into by Florida, the United States, and Miami-Dade County,” Moreno wrote.

The two sides have until March 21 to submit any amendments. Moreno will make a final ruling on the agreement after that.

In a memo to county commissioners Friday, County Attorney Robert Cuevas said his office would work with administrators on a response to present to the board. Commissioners had approved the settlement as written.

While the judge cannot rewrite the consent decree, he warned the county and federal governments in a hearing last month that he had concerns about some aspects of the agreement. He called a potential fine of $500 a day for violations, for a county with a $4.4 billion operating budget, “ridiculous.”

He also seemed to agree with environmentalists who said they worried Miami-Dade would raid Water and Sewer Department funds — as it has done in the past — to bolster the county’s general fund.

Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, a group of environmental activists, had challenged the proposal in court, saying it doesn't require Miami-Dade to take into account climate change in its sewer plans. Attorneys for the federal government said the decree is imposed for specific pollution violations to be fixed over the next 15 years, without requiring modifications for sea-level rise.

Still, the environmentalists cheered Friday’s request from the judge.

“His opinion leaves a window open, if you will, for us to hold the county’s feet to the fire on their promises that they’re going to make the sewer plans climate-resilient,” said Albert Slap, a Waterkeeper attorney.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 121, which represents water and sewer workers, also intervened in the case, saying working conditions had deteriorated due to a failure by Miami-Dade to maintain its sewer pipes.

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