Federal judge signs agreement for $1.6 billion in Miami-Dade sewer repairs

A judge accepted the consent decree between Miami-Dade County and state and federal regulators, allowing sewer repairs to begin in earnest. But activists are disappointed the agreement doesn’t ask Miami-Dade to do more.

04/15/2014 6:25 PM

04/15/2014 8:32 PM

Years in the making, a legal agreement is finally in place requiring Miami-Dade County to make $1.6 billion in repairs over the next 15 years to its decaying sewer system.

A Miami federal judge has signed the consent decree between the county, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which was in the works for more than two years, though federal and state complaints date further back. The regulators accused Miami-Dade of violating pollution laws, including the Clean Water Act, by letting untreated sewage spill from its rupturing pipes and crumbling pump stations.

As part of the agreement, the county will be required to meet deadlines for a slew of capital-improvement projects — some of which have already begun construction — or face fines.

For now, U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, who entered the decree into the record last Wednesday, did not appoint a special master to oversee the agreement, as he had suggested and environmental activists who challenged the agreement had hoped.

Instead, the court will require reports every six months detailing any sewer spills and the status of ongoing projects, as well as any penalties for delays or other violations. Those penalties have doubled, at the judge’s urging, though in some cases that’s only to $1,000 a day, from $500.

Moreno could name a special master in the future, at the county’s expense.

“It’s a huge relief” to have the agreement in place, Bill Johnson, the new director of the county’s water and sewer department, said Tuesday. “There’s unbelievable amounts of work to be done.”

There was disappointment, however, from Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, the environmental group that wanted more-stringent requirements — particularly that the sewer projects take into account sea-level rise in their design and construction.

Attorneys for the federal government said in court earlier this year that the decree was intended to address only specific repairs over the next decade and a half that do not require climate-change modifications.

“Certainly, this is a lot less than Waterkeeper and its supporters had hoped for,” Albert Slap, the organization’s attorney, wrote in an email to the group.

Though Miami-Dade has entered into regional plans to deal with rising sea levels, and county commissioners have said climate change must be considered in future projects, Slap lamented that there is nothing in writing forcing the government to follow through on what could become even more expensive fixes.

“The elected leaders in Miami-Dade County need to put the voters’ tax dollars to use wisely — so that they do not, as Miami-Dade’s own experts have opined, risk $2 billion in wastewater plant capital losses in this hurricane season and every one that follows,” he wrote.

In his order accepting the agreement, Moreno said Waterkeeper had not proven any bad faith on the part of the county or state and federal regulators. Further litigation, the judge added, would be expensive and delay needed improvements.

He did not address concerns by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 121, which represents Miami-Dade water and sewer workers and had opposed the consent decree, saying failure to maintain the system had caused their working conditions to deteriorate.

Commissioners authorized borrowing $4.25 billion to pay for the projects. They also approved the first of several expected water-rate increasess, which went up 8 percent this year. An additional 6 percent increase has been proposed for next year.

To blunt criticism that the county in the past tapped water and sewer funds for other cash-strapped departments — a practice that has since ended — the consent decree requires notice to the state and feds if any such transfer is proposed. The commission also approved a resolution last month saying that, as a matter of policy, no water and sewer funds will be moved out of the department.

Despite the $1.6 billion price tag, the repairs required by the agreement only scratch the surface of how much Miami-Dade estimates it will have to invest in its crumbling system. In all, the county says it needs about $12 billion in upgrades to its existing pumping stations and pipes. That doesn’t contemplate extending the lines to under-served neighborhoods.

The consent decree is the result of more than two years of negotiations between the county, state and federal governments, intended to resolve the pollution violations and help Miami-Dade avoid steeper fines. The county must still pay a penalty of almost $1 million.

It is the third such accord the county has entered into over its sewer pipes, some of which are more than half a century old. The last consent decree, in 1996, came with a $2 million fine and forced Miami-Dade to expand its capacity.

The latest case began with Florida regulators noting county pollution violations in 2009. A series of warning letters followed after several high-profile ruptures. Between 2008 and 2012, Miami-Dade reported 177 sewage spills totaling more than 50 million gallons.

Of chief concern was the delicate condition of the brittle pipe carrying sewage underwater from Miami Beach to a Virginia Key treatment plant. A potential break there could have been “catastrophic,” the water and sewer department’s former director warned. As early as 1991, a grand jury report had cautioned about damaging sewer line breaks.

The county has already replaced the portion of the sewer main from Miami Beach to Fisher Island, and has begun work to do the same on the remaining pipe from Fisher Island to Virginia Key, county Mayor Carlos Gimenez told commissioners in a memo last month.

For the bulk of the remaining improvements to get underway, Miami-Dade must first resolve a contracting dispute between two firms that have submitted bids to manage the projects on the county’s behalf. A contract award has stalled pending an internal review and a review by the county’s inspector general.

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