Even with the pleasant South Florida weather through the winter months, Pierre Rutledge hasn’t opened the windows of his Liberty City home in many months.
The 53-year-old has kept the windows closed to keep out the dust being kicked up by crews working on sewer mains on his street. The fine particles have coated windows, cars and anything outside since the work began in May 2017. Rutledge now regularly flushes out his sinuses.
“We want to be good citizens, but you can only take so much,” he told the Miami Herald.
Contractors working for Miami-Dade’s water and sewer department have been working on 55th Street at Ninth Avenue since last year, relocating a sewer pump and replacing pipes underground. The $1.2 million project covers several necessary upgrades for the aging system, but has dragged on for months longer than anticipated.
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As dust clouds rise from the site, neighbors complain of irritated eyes and breathing issues. After residents complained to government agencies earlier this year, the contractors were cited once by the county’s environmental regulators in February and twice by Miami’s code enforcement department in January and February.
A spokeswoman for Miami-Dade’s water and sewer department said the county first received complaints about the dust in December and has been proactively working with the neighbors to mitigate the problem by sweeping the street and hosing down the area at the end of construction each day.
But neighbors are still dealing with the dust.
“We just want them to complete the project,” said Sam Lattimore, president of Hadley Park Neighborhood Association, who lives on the street. Small mounds of dirt from construction have collected on his front porch, leaving a film of dust on his bicycle, his waste bins and his tools. He’s kept his windows closed, too, because he’s had some breathing problems.
“They should have gotten in here and worked fast so they could get out,” said Lattimore, 72.
Jennifer Messemer-Skold, spokeswoman for the water and sewer department, said the project was originally scheduled to be done in December, but work was delayed because of Hurricane Irma, permitting problems and some unexpected issues with the composition of the soil.
Messemer said the work should be complete by the end of the month. Neighbors would be happy to see the end of construction, but they’ve already had discomfort and anxiety over the dust problem for months.
An air quality expert from the University of Miami said airborne dust particles can cause health issues for people who encounter it regularly, depending on the coarseness of the particles. Naresh Kumar, associate professor of environmental health at UM, said if dust interacts with sewage, it can absorb microorganisms and create health problems for people who inhale it.
“That can become even more allergenic,” he said. “Sometimes it can lead to infection, as well, depending on how bad these microorganisms can be.”
Public records show dust wasn’t the only issue at the construction site earlier this year. Regulatory agencies have cited Maestre Construction Inc. for the dust problem and for working without necessary permits.
On Feb. 14, the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Division issued a violation to Maestre citing “excessive visible emissions” of dust that was affecting properties on Northwest 55th Street. Two subsequent inspections in March did not find any violations, said division spokeswoman Tere Florin.
The city of Miami issued its own violations. On Jan. 16, Miami’s public works department cited Maestre for working without a permit to close the street, leaving the work area in “poor and unsafe conditions,” and storing equipment in the right-of-way. One month later, the contractor had the required permit, but the city again cited the contractor for the same other two reasons.
Both citations carried fines of $262.50 per day until the conditions were corrected. Maestre later paid $5,985 for the January violation and $525 for the February violation.
On Tuesday, the president of Maestre Construction gave the Herald a brief statement about the project.
“We are performing as per the contract which adheres to all federal, state, and municipal requirements,” said Angel Maestre. “We are doing our best to finish as soon as possible. We kindly request the residents to bear with us during this time.”
When a reporter visited the site Friday to take pictures of the dust, about 30 minutes passed before a truck drove along the site dripping water onto the dirt to reduce the dust, a measure Kumar said significantly helps reduce the impact on the air quality.
But Lattimore said workers were watering down the site only because of the presence of a reporter. He said the contractor didn’t do any watering until residents complained in February. Pointing to the dust that coated gates, windows and doors up and down the street, he said the watering truck still isn’t used every day.
Kumar suggested neighbors take some precautions while the work continues, including wearing masks, lifting their shirts over their mouths and noses while they’re outside and limiting the time they spend outdoors.
“You have to just reduce your exposure,” he said.
Residents such as Rutledge just hope the work concludes as soon as possible.
“They got to finish the job,” he said.