Don’t treat your toilet like a trash can
Aroldo Hernandez supervises maintenance for Miami-Dade’s sewage plants, and he predicted a big mess in an email to his boss three months ago.
“I have no parts for these pumps,” Hernandez wrote to Albert Galambos Jr. on Jan. 29 about a waterfront station in Sunny Isles Beach designed to safely pump millions of gallons of raw sewage from nearby condo towers and homes and businesses to a treatment plant about three miles away in North Miami Beach.
Miami-Dade was already under a court order to replace the aging station with modern technology, and at the end of 2018 the county described the facility as being “beyond its useful life” due to constant exposure to the salt air of Biscayne Bay. Two of the station’s four pumps were out of service, and Hernandez hadn’t received the replacement parts he needed to fix them.
Now he was asking Galambos, chief of pump-station maintenance, for help renting two backup pumps for $27,000. Otherwise, Hernandez wrote, the station was in danger of having no working pumps if something went wrong.
“I feel this should be done before we loose the station,” Hernandez wrote in an email where a couple of typos did not obscure the sense of urgency conveyed by the maintenance supervisor. “My hands are tide up at this moment.”
Hernandez was right to worry. Three days later, on Feb. 1, the two working pumps at Station No. 301 became clogged with improperly flushed rags and other debris, leading to the complete failure the following morning that Hernandez had warned was looming.
More than 700,000 gallons of sewage from pipes serving more than 20,000 people poured out of the station at 350 Sunny Isles Beach Blvd. and into a storm drain that connects with Biscayne Bay. The discharge was serious enough that the county warned the public against using the bay and ocean waters for a 30-block area that included Haulover Beach and the sands off Oleta River State Park.
In two hours, the single station had discharged more than the estimated 650,000 gallons of sewage spilled throughout the entire county sewer system in 47 mishaps during the last six months of 2018. “That speaks to the severity of it,” said Kelly Cox, general counsel at the Miami Waterkeeper advocacy group, which monitors sewage spills. “In our eyes, that’s a big deal.”
Internal county emails and summaries obtained through a public records request show a struggle to get replacement parts and a stalled effort to bring in emergency pumps preceded the spill. The records also show the Water and Sewer Department glossed over some of the details behind Pump Station 301’s problems when called before the County Commission weeks later to explain how the spill happened.
Pump Station 301 is one of 34 pump stations flagged as requiring upgrades in the 2014 EPA settlement with Miami-Dade, the latest in a string of legal actions against the county’s sewer system that started in the early 1990s. The federal environmental agency sued Miami-Dade again in 2012 over the county’s failing sewer system, which it said violated the Clean Water Act. Most of the pump stations are being upgraded, but the 301 facility is still waiting for work to begin.
Miami-Dade’s sewer system spilled about 50 million gallons of human waste in the four years before the 2012 litigation, according to the EPA. Those discharges came from nearly 200 failures, and the settlement required Miami-Dade’s agreement to rebuild treatment plants, pipes and pump stations. At the time, the cost was estimated at $1.6 billion. Now the estimate is closer to $1.8 billion.
In March, Miami-Dade agreed to pay an extra $48 million to the engineering firm hired in 2014 to design and oversee the 15-year work program required by the settlement, including 34 pump stations. Miami-Dade had expected AECOM’s original $91 million fee to last 15 years, but it lasted only five. The county and firm engineers said more work was needed to complete the program launched after the 2012 EPA lawsuit, and the expanded scope increased the engineering and design fees.
“The system is getting in better and better shape all the time,” Water and Sewer director Kevin Lynskey told commissioners on Feb. 20. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have failures.”
He said with more than 1,000 pump stations throughout the county, Water and Sewer can’t avoid the occasional breakdown that causes sewage to escape. State statistics provided by Water and Sewer show Miami-Dade last year had the fewest sewage spills among Florida’s other large counties — 51, compared to 114 in Orange County and 64 in neighboring Broward.
Wipes down the toilet cause problems
Water and Sewer administrators blamed the Feb. 2 spill solely on consumers sending waste that doesn’t belong there down drains and toilets. Baby wipes are a significant culprit, since they’re designed to be tossed in the trash and not flushed. Grease through kitchen sinks also leads to gummy clots of congealed fat that can clog pipes and then help bind wipes and other rags that exhaust pumps like the ones that failed in Sunny Isles Beach.
“Even if we had a brand new pump station there, there’s a fair chance it would have failed,” Lynskey told county commissioners. He said the station “more or less suffered a heart attack. ... In this case, a very large ball must have come down through system. It entered the two functioning pumps, it got caught up in the impellers, and it brought the system down in two different moments in a couple of hours.”
An internal summary of the spill prepared by Galambos for Lynskey described a pump station with issues before the trouble began.
“The #1 pump out of service and not physically in the station due to a broken impeller shaft,” Galambos wrote in the two-page summary sent to Lysnkey on Feb. 18. “The #3 was out of service due to a bad shaft sleeve and was valved off. It could be run if needed but due to heavy leakage, it could cause a flooding condition in the drywell. It was scheduled to be rebuilt once the #1 pump was returned to service.”
In his presentation to commissioners, Lynskey did not delve into the problems with the third pump or a supervisor’s warning of a potential failure if temporary pumps weren’t rented. “On the day it failed, there were three pumps in the system that could be functioning,” Lynskey told commissioners. “At any one moment, only two are required to keep the system going. So we have a backup pump.”
A draft PowerPoint presentation to the board did note the station was working at half-strength when the spill occurred. A slide describing the station’s status said it had “2 pumps out of service,” according to a Feb. 11 email from Water and Sewer administrators. But the final version shown to commissioners the following week edited out that description and said the station had “one pump out of service.”
Jennifer Messemer, a spokeswoman for Water and Sewer, said the final presentation was more accurate since three pumps at the station were operable. “While its condition warranted rehabilitation work,” Messemer said, “Pump No. 3 was available as a manually operated backup, and served this purpose during the event.”
County crews worked overnight to stop the spill
After the spill, Miami-Dade scrambled to cut through red tape to get the pumps fixed. “I am declaring an emergency to effectuate the repair of damaged pumps at the pump station,” Antonio Cotarelo, a deputy director of the department, wrote on Feb. 13. On Thursday, Lynskey said four new pumps are being purchased for Station 301 and should be in place by late May.
In the first weekend of February, the two aging pumps at the station were struggling to stay running during a severe clog. The pumps already had three feet of raw sewage in the underground trough below them (called the “drywell”) by the time a repair crew arrived at the Sunny Isles facility at 11:15 p.m. on Feb. 1 to respond to a remote alarm there. The two working pumps, No. 2 and No. 4, were “running but ... clogged and not pumping.”
The crew quickly isolated the No. 2 pump, removed the rags and fabric that clogged its blades, then put the machine back into service. Working past midnight, the crew was able to get the No. 4 pump cleared and working again shortly after 2 a.m. But it was a brief relief, since the No. 2 pump — running solo for nearly three hours —developed a leak serious enough that it had to be shut down and sent to a county repair shop in North Miami Beach to be fixed.
That left the No. 4 pump to carry the load, but it only lasted an hour. By 3 a.m., a bearing failure felled the last pump running in a station designed for four of them. From there, the crew turned to the No. 3 pump — the one that was out of service for a broken shaft sleeve. That pump was able to start moving sewage by 5:40 a.m., according to the summary.
The No. 3 pump lasted for fewer than three hours before it shut down too, according to the Galambos summary. The motor fuses failed at 8:40 a.m., the bearings on the pump froze up, and it was declared unfixable without a trip to the county repair shop. “At this time,” Galambos wrote, “there were no pumps available.”
The crew was still waiting for a portable pump to Station 301 as a backup. One was available at a county depot, and supervisors agreed to send it to Sunny Isles Beach that morning. The portable pump Hernandez requested in his email four days earlier hadn’t come through. Messemer said it was “still moving through the approval/vetting process.”
Hernandez declined an interview request. Messemer said his requested parts for the pumps were coming, but that the equipment required components so customized that they couldn’t be provided quickly. The department also wasn’t eager to buy pumps at a station slated to be rebuilt and redesigned under the EPA-settlement program. Messemer said “the purchase of new pumps was placed on hold in order to analyze the benefits” of getting new equipment over “rehabilitating” the existing ones.
Miami-Dade charges some of the lowest water rates in the country, even after a $1.80 raise in 2019 to the monthly fee that funds sewer projects and operations. Sewage and water fees are the sole revenue source for the county’s $895 million water and sewer budget.
Money remains a challenge for the department, which lists nearly $2 million in unfunded operational needs tied to its sewer system.
The agency said it needs another $700,000 a year to hire nine people to work on the consent-decree program. Water and Sewer also needs $500,000 for another nine people tied to supporting maintenance and operations in the sewer system, according to the budget, and about $650,000 for another nine people to work in the division that maintains pump stations like the one that failed on Feb. 2.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez told commissioners at the Feb. 20 meeting that he thought Water and Sewer wasn’t spending enough on backup pumps that are needed when stations fail from clogs, power outages and other breakdowns. He said he instructed Lynskey to start the procurement process to buy more. “We’ll do better in the future,” he said.
Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who represents South Dade and is running for county mayor in 2020, requested Lynskey make the presentation before the board. On Friday, she said Miami-Dade needs to reexamine its funding for the county sewer system and decide whether it’s raising enough money to improve it as quickly as the county can.
“I think we need to have a deep dive into what are the system’s needs. I can’t tell you we need to raise the rates,” she said. “But I do know we have major infrastructure challenges. And we have to be honest with the public about that.”
A court order to improve the pumps
Of the 34 pump stations required to have new, modern equipment under the federal consent decree, 18 have been upgraded and 16 are under way. The one station that hasn’t been acted on yet by Miami-Dade is Pump Station 301. Construction of the new pump station is expected to start in December and be finished by the summer of 2021.
When the station was left without a working pump the afternoon of Feb. 2, the failure allowed sewage to flow out of the station for about two hours, starting at 2:30 p.m. County mechanics working overnight shifts managed to rebuild the No. 2 pump, and it was installed at the station at 4:25 p.m. By 11 p.m., the No. 4 pump was back at the station and running, with the portable pump also there as a backup.
The two-hour spill washed over countless weekend plans. On Sunday, Miami-Dade warned the public not to swim, fish or boat in waters that included Haulover Inlet, parts of the oceanfront beaches off Sunny Isles and the Oleta River State Park.
“We had to shut down that day,” said Millie Llanos, manager of the popular kayak station at Oleta. The business, BG Oleta River, includes a second-floor gift shop and a fleet of more than 300 kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. It counts on Saturday and Sunday crowds for a large chunk of its sales, and the spill at Pump Station 301 turned a banner weekend into a bust.
“Most people come to Oleta to get in the water,” Llanos said. “People were upset.”