Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade sewer spills top 1 million gallons in last six months

A man washes his cooler at Hobie Beach in 2001 despite the signs warning of water contamination along the Rickenbacker Causeway after 12 million gallons of raw sewage spilled from a broken pipe at the mouth of the Miami River.
A man washes his cooler at Hobie Beach in 2001 despite the signs warning of water contamination along the Rickenbacker Causeway after 12 million gallons of raw sewage spilled from a broken pipe at the mouth of the Miami River. Miami Herald Staff

More than a million gallons of raw sewage spilled from Miami-Dade County’s aging sewer system in the last six months while delays in plans to repair it continued to stall contracts, according to a new status report required in a court settlement.

The report, part of a consent decree signed by the county last year after federal and state regulators sued over chronic problems, must be filed every six months and tracks progress on $1.6 billion in repairs scheduled over the next 15 years.

Despite the setbacks, the department is likely to beat its final deadline for repairs and is nearly finished with mapping work that will allow it to more accurately pinpoint problems, said water and sewer deputy director Juan Carlos Arteaga.

“We haven’t missed any [major] deadlines yet and we don’t intend to,” Arteaga said.

Altogether, more than a million gallons of untreated sewage spilled on 64 occasions. Of that, the vast majority, about 75 percent, occurred during two events. In November, a pump motor failed in the 3300 block of West 76th Street in Hialeah, sending 540,000 gallons of sewage into the streets. A month later, a contractor working in the 10100 block of West Hibiscus Street near Perrine damaged a line, spilling more than 230,000 gallons of sewage.

Of the 64 spills, nine amounted to more than 10,000 gallons or more, with three caused by breaks in old asbestos cement pipes that include 26 miles of old pipe the county must replace.

Three of the large spills caused raw sewage to reach coastal waters, which could trigger violations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and rise as high as reach $4,000 each, said spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young. Another three smaller spills also contaminated water. Eleven smaller spills could also trigger state fines.

The county is working on 101 different projects to address the problems spelled out in the consent decree, Arteaga said. Six major projects have been completed.

The consent decree was struck in 2014 to prevent the county from continuing to rack up federal and state fines. Between 2008 and 2012, Miami-Dade reported 177 sewage spills totaling more than 50 million gallons. It is also the third such deal struck by the county over its sewer pipes, some of which date back a half century.

The weakest point in the system is brittle pipe that carries sewage across Biscayne Bay from Miami Beach to Virginia Key. But other problems plague the system as well: On Sunday, heavy rainfall caused five million gallons of partially treated sewage to overflow the North District Wastewater Treatment Plant. The spill prompted a swimming ban at Oleta River State Park in North Miami.

The recent selection of a consultant to complete a $16.5 million plan that pinpoints weaknesses in the system should help stop spills while work progresses, Arteaga said.

“That is going to give us what we need to be proactive rather than reactive on all these things,” he said.

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