A sewage spill that began Sunday afternoon by Oleta River might not be stopped until Friday as Miami-Dade launches a 24-hour underwater repair operation on a pipe that the county had planned to replace within two years.
The leak of raw human waste comes from a 48-inch pipe that runs 12 feet under the Oleta in the middle of the state park that carries the river’s name. It carries sewage from the Sunny Isles Beach area to the North District Wastewater Treatment Plant.
While most spills in Miami-Dade’s problematic sewer system get halted within hours, county administrators said they’d have to suspend sewer service to nearby cities in order to fix this rupture immediately. “We can’t shut off the line,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Messemer-Skold. “If we do, we’re stopping wastewater flowing west from Sunny Isles Beach, Golden Beach and the Eastern Shores in North Miami Beach.”
Instead, the Water and Sewer Department plans to install a bypass pipe around the rupture and then perform a permanent repair. That leaves Miami-Dade with the unusual problem of a sewage spill measured in days, not hours.
“In my experience, having an ongoing spill that can’t be repaired is quite rare,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeepers. “It’s deeply concerning. We don’t know how widespread the contamination can get.”
To lower the amount of sewage flowing through the damaged pipe, Miami-Dade is asking residents of Northeast Dade to reduce water usage this week. Messemer-Skold said the request is for residents of North Miami, North Miami Beach, Aventura, Bal Harbour and Sunny Isles Beach to cut down on showers, laundry, running the dishwasher, and other tasks using large amounts of water until the leak is stopped.
Starting Monday night, county contractors plan to build a bypass pipe over the bridge on Northeast 163rd Street that runs over the Oleta, an emergency repair that will close one lane on the east-west road. That repair operation is expected to last 72 hours, with the hope that work will be finished Thursday night. The bypass pipe is expected to be in operation for about 120 days, until the county can finish a permanent repair of the original sewer main.
The spill report filed with Florida regulators said the spill began at 6 p.m. Sunday. Miami-Dade’s Water and Sewer Department said it doesn’t know what caused the rupture, or how quickly sewage is flowing into the river that connects with Biscayne Bay and then the Atlantic Ocean.
Also on Sunday, Miami-Dade announced a no-swim warning for a 40-block area around the spill, including Maule Lake to the north and Haulover Beach and the Haulover Inlet to the south. The advisory covers beaches 500 feet north and south of the inlet, stopping at the mainland and eastern shores of the bay. Greynolds Park and Oleta River State Park are also covered by the warning. The warning discourages people from swimming, fishing or traveling by boat in the area.
The advisory will remain in effect until the waters test clear of contamination for two straight days after repairs are done.
The closest address to the spill is 2500 NE 163rd St., according to a county release. Bid documents sent to contractors for the emergency repair said the same pipe ruptured in that location in 1996 during bridge work. “It is unknown if the 1996 repair has become dislodged or there is another break at a different location,” the bid document said.
Kevin Lynskey, the county’s water and sewer director, said Miami-Dade had planned to begin replacing the pipe next year by hiring a firm to produce the design documents for the project. Construction would be finished by the fall of 2021. He said the pipe was built in the 1960s, but that the 1996 repair included a replacement of that stretch of pipe. He said the department thinks the leak came from there, so the damaged pipe is probably less than 25 years old.
Miami-Dade’s sewer department is already under a court order to complete a $1.8 billion modernization of the system by 2026. The list of required upgrades from that 2013 court order does not include the damaged pipe, Lynskey said. It’s part of a separate modernization plan within the county’s $8.9 billion budget, with sewer upgrades funded by residential and commercial water bills.
An Aug. 8 grand jury report on an environmental crisis facing Biscayne Bay cited Miami-Dade’s sewer system as a source of concern. Citing frequent leaks, the report noted “a significant amount of human waste ... makes its way into the canal system and into the Bay.”
This post was updated to remove an incorrect description of Greynolds Park’s location.