The big billion-dollar stink over sewers in the Keys

In most places, sewer projects are a humdrum affair. Not in the Keys.

08/16/2014 4:52 PM

08/16/2014 9:30 PM

From the era of Ernest Hemingway to the days of Jimmy Buffett, the island city of Key West got rid of its raw sewage the old-fashioned way, by dumping it into the sea.

But, in 1979, the adage “the solution to pollution is dilution” no longer was acceptable for the environmentally sensitive waters near the world’s third-largest barrier coral reef. The state demanded that Key West clean up its act, and the city of 25,000 did just that, by building a treatment plant.

The rest of the island chain, however, continued to rely on septic tanks, cesspits and other onsite disposal systems, meaning that with every flush, more nutrient-rich human waste seeped through the porous limestone and into the fragile ecosystem of a national marine sanctuary. The once-cobalt blue waters of this self-described paradise were becoming choked with algae. So the state, in 1999, ordered the rest of Monroe County to convert to central sewers.

Nearly $1 billion later, the plumbing of the Keys is within sight of the finish line. It has been an odyssey steeped in angry words, purported conspiracies, regulatory wrangling and lawsuits — even though people have agreed on the ultimate goal: clean coastal water.

The fighting is far from over. Community groups with names like Dump the Pumps and the Sir Isaac Newton Coalition are still battling with government agencies in court and in the news media.

To some, the aroma from the new sewer system carries a whiff of scandal. They accuse politicians of bait-and-switch tactics, shifting money meant for sewers into other pet projects. Funding has come from the state, the federal stimulus and an increase in the local sales tax, which is mostly paid by tourists.

FINAL PIECES

“This was a daunting task, but we’re down to the last two pieces of the puzzle,” said George Neugent, the only Monroe County Commissioner who has been in office since the beginning.

Indeed, 10 of the 12 major service areas are mostly done. But the remaining two areas have been nettlesome. One unfinished chunk, the Village of Islamorada service area, has had its political problems, but a deal was worked out to pipe its sewer to the treatment plant in Key Largo. Work is now under way on the connection system for Islamorada, which bills itself as the world’s sports fishing capital and would hate to see its coastal waters further despoiled. It is scheduled for completion by the new state deadline of Dec. 1, 2015.

And then there is the last piece: the Cudjoe Regional project, running from mile marker 17 on Sugarloaf Key to mile marker 33 on Big Pine Key. It is not only the most geographically complex slice, but the costliest, at $170 million.

The Cudjoe service area, encompassing up to 10,000 of the overall network’s 76,000 hookups, includes eight islands, 10 bridge crossings, an underwater crossing (because the Niles bridge was deemed too rickety), the National Key Deer Refuge and the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.

It includes 150 to 200 homes so remote it was deemed too expensive to hook them up to the central system. They will be getting special onsite systems paid for partly by a $3.7 million alternative technology grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, said Kirk Zuelch, executive director of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority. The authority is responsible for the construction, operation and maintenance of Cudjoe Regional.

The verdict is still out on what’s going to happen to 43 homes on No Name Key, a community that up until a few years ago wasn’t even hooked up to the electrical grid.

The Cudjoe Regional system also has attracted the biggest stink from its service area residents. Some are furious over a design change that switched about 2,200 connections from gravity pumps — harnessing the force of gravity to keep the flow going — to low-pressure grinder pumps, which operate on electricity. Among the objection to grinder pumps: They will stop working during power outages, which can last a long time after storms.

Others are also inflamed because treated wastewater will be injected into four shallow wells instead of a deep well. The latter is more expensive but would ensure that treated water is cleaner — and farther from shore — once it eventually surfaces.

Opponents say the grinder pumps — cheaper than a gravity system — are an example of the project’s designers saving money now at the expense of bigger maintenance headaches and higher future expenses.

“What’s going on is a travesty,” said Walt Drabinski, founder of the Sir Isaac Newton Coalition (so named because members are advocates of gravity pumps) and the owner of Venture Energy Consulting on Summerland Key.

“We are going to pay for this fiasco for years to come,” said real estate agent Banks Prevatt, founder of Dump the Pumps.

He and Dabrinski both say the grinder pumps can cause explosions due to buildup of gases.

According to Drabinski, there are many examples of failed grinder pump systems, including one in the Indian River County community of Rockridge in 2004. Without electricity for extended periods of times after Hurricane Frances, the city’s low-pressure grinder pump sewer system shut down. An article from the publication Government Engineering said sewage “backed up into homes and contaminated the area’s groundwater” and that the result was “entire neighborhoods became giant bacteria-producing Petri dishes.”

DURABLE, SO FAR

So far, those dire predictions haven’t come true on Grassy Key, near Marathon, where an all-grinder pump system has been in operation. Marathon City Manager Mike Puto wrote that in the first 1 1/2 years of use, the grinder stations have proven to be durable and the pumps require little to no maintenance.

But after public protests against grinder pumps for Cudjoe, county commissioners voted to spend a combined $13 million more to convert about 1,350 homes back to gravity pumps. That did not satisfy Dump the Pumps. In February, Prevatt filed a petition for a legislative hearing contesting all the connection line permits issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection. The hearing is set for Sept. 29.

“I’m not fighting against the sewer project,” Prevatt said. “I’m fighting to do it right. Not to do a half-ass job.”

He’s also concerned that one of those connection permits calls for using two abandoned water lines that run across the bottom of Florida Bay to hook up swanky Little Palm Island.

“There is a history of those pipes being hit by boat propellers and breaking,” Prevatt said. “They are not buried in the mud. They just lay on the bay bottom.”

The Aqueduct Authority is also catching flak from a group called Dig Deep Cudjoe, as well as two homeowner associations and various individuals upset with another design aspect.

They oppose the authority’s decision to dispose of the effluent by injecting it into four shallow wells. Each well is 120 feet deep, which allows the treated wastewater to make its way within days into the near shore waters just 75 yards away.

Jan Edelstein, Dig Deep Cudjoe’s founder, said the county could and should spend another $6 million to build a deep well, which would prevent treated wastewater from making its way into the near shore waters.

Such a well would bore about 3,000 feet deep, into the boulder zone. From there, according to the county’s own master wastewater plan of 2000, treated water would slowly travel laterally and likely not converge with the ocean floor until 15 to 30 miles offshore, where the water is deep and the small levels of remaining nutrients would do little harm. The systems in Key Largo and Key West both use a deep well.

Zuelch said the Aqueduct Authority is following state law, which requires that a deep well be built only if the average annual per day disposal rate is more than one million gallons per day. For Cudjoe, the authority requested a permit for 940,000 gallons per day (although its capacity is 2.35 million for peak times).

The Aqueduct Authority is planning to build four monitoring wells around the sewer plant to make sure the water quality does not degrade. If it does, or if the plant surpasses the one million per day threshold, then a deep well will be built, Zuelch said.

For Don Demaria, a Lower Keys commercial fisherman and underwater photographer, that’s not the way to go. He and fellow commercial fisherman Mike Laudicina, along with two homeowner associations, filed a lawsuit on July 24, claiming the wastewater numbers are being manipulated to justify shallow wells.

Tom Walker, the Aqueduct Authority’s director of engineering, said there was “absolutely no number manipulation.”

The lawsuit has drawn more dueling interest groups into the fray. Last Stand, an environmental group based in Key West, intervened on behalf of the plaintiffs, claiming treated water at the Cudjoe plant would not meet Florida’s standards for nitrogen and phosphorous.

Reef Relief, another Key West-based group, weighed in on the other side, backing the DEP and the Aqueduct Authority.

“Every delay in the completion and activation of the facility is counterproductive to the goal we have all worked so tirelessly to accomplish,” Reef Relief said in a statement.

LITTLE VENICE

Meanwhile, in parts of the Keys where residents and businesses already are hooked up, water quality appears to be improving. That was documented in Little Venice, a canal-side subdivision in Marathon. Water was tested for three years before a treatment plant was constructed in 2004, and then tested for four years after it was operational.

Tests found a 77 percent decrease in fecal coliform and a 57 percent decrease in enterococci bacteria, both byproducts of human waste.

Key Largo resident Stephen Frink, a world-renowned underwater photographer and publisher of Alert Diver magazine, says he personally has seen an improvement in water quality off Key Largo since that town hooked up to a central system.

“While I saw an almost immediate improvement in the canals, this year I also saw new coral growth,” he said. “And I was seeing a lot of really good fish.”

Citing the region’s other challenges, he added: “Sewers won’t fix climate change, overfishing, ocean acidification or the lionfish problem, but putting in sewers is the best thing the Keys has done.”

As the legal challenges inch their way through the courts, work is moving forward on the Cudjoe Regional system. At present, the treatment plant is scheduled to open in February. Households and businesses will hook up in phases after that, with the last ones expected to connect at the end of 2016.

Last week, Zuelch stood on the top of a closed landfill that overlooks crews in hard hats working on the plant. In the distance: a splendid view of Cudjoe Basin, mangrove islands and the Gulf of Mexico.

“This is what it’s all about,” he said. “We all want to protect our beautiful waters.”

On that, at least, everyone seems to agree.

“A billion bucks is a bargain,” said Frink. “It’s so insignificant compared to the importance of the coral reef. It’s unconscionable that it took as long as it did.”

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