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Miami-Dade proposes spending $1.5 billion over 15 years to cure sewer system woes

Six months into negotiations with federal regulators over Miami-Dade’s aging sewer system, the county has come up with a $1.5 billion, 15-year plan to rebuild pipes, pumps and sewage treatment plants that in some cases are almost 100 years old.

County leaders devised the proposal in an attempt to fend off a federal lawsuit, and potentially millions of dollars in fines, for not abiding by the federal Clean Water Act. The county also has proposed replacing or repairing a good portion of the 7,500 miles of sewer lines that regularly rupture and spill millions of gallons of raw waste into local waterways and Biscayne Bay.

Before any work is to begin, the Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency — which put the county on notice in May — must accept the county’s terms. The plan, referred to as a consent decree, also must be endorsed by a majority of county commissioners. That could come as soon as late January or early February.

One of the largest repair jobs would be a $555 million reconstruction of the controversial wastewater treatment plant on Virginia Key. Entire concrete structures would be rebuilt, and pump stations and electrical systems would be replaced. The plan calls for spending another $394 million on similar fixes to two other wastewater treatment facilities, in Goulds and North Miami.

Another $408 million would be spent replacing and rehabbing the county’s 1,035 pump stations, and miles of transmission lines that run to and from the plants.

The plan has already garnered some criticism.

The Biscayne Bay Waterkeepers, clean-water activists who filed to join the federal action against the county, say spending hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild on Virginia Key is a waste, because the spit of land is likely to be under water within 50 years.

The group points to a recent study by the journal Science that showed the polar ice caps in Greenland are melting at three times the rate originally believed. They also say a climate change compact Miami-Dade agreed to with three other counties — which accepted a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study that shows sea levels will rise 3 feet by 2060 — shows the Virginia Key plant could be in peril.

“Doubling down on Virginia Key the way they’re doing it is just stupid,” said environmental attorney Albert J. Slap, representing the Waterkeepers. “There’s not a dime in it for armoring the plant, or raising it. It’s on a barrier island.”

Doug Yoder, deputy director of the county’s water and sewer department, didn’t dispute the Army Corps findings, and said the county could abandon the Virginia Key plant for a new plant on the western edge of the county if federal regulators make such a demand.

“We certainly don’t want to spend a lot of money fixing up a facility we’ll soon abandon,” he said.

Most of the costs for the overall plan will be covered through county revenue bonds, Yoder said, meaning a future increase in water rates and debt service bills. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has been warning for months that rate hikes are in the offing.

To meet demands from the feds, the county also must abandon by 2027 an outflow system it now uses that dumps up to 120 million gallons of sewage each day miles offshore. The county has until July 2013 to come up with an alternate disposal method.

A project cited in the new plan that had not been publicly addressed previously is the installation of 7,660 linear feet of sewer mains in an industrial area just below State Road 112 and between Northwest 27th and 37th avenues, which now depends on septic tanks. The job of hooking up local businesses there to county sewers would cost a little over $2 million.

Federal regulators began talks with Miami-Dade in May after a series of massive raw sewage spills released more than 47 million gallons of untreated human waste throughout the county. DOJ and the EPA, along with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, sketched out the 78-page consent decree.

Four times between October and December 2011, the sewage treatment plant on Virginia Key alone ruptured, spilling more than 19 million gallons.

The county also has agreed to pay a $978,000 fine for past spills within 30 days of the plan being accepted, with about half the money going to the DOJ and the other half to the state.

DOJ spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle declined to comment Friday.

In October, the county denied 12 permit applications in the Coconut Grove area by businesses that wanted to install sinks, toilets or showers. The county said it was imposing a moratorium on new sewage outflow from a Coconut Grove-serving pump station.