Miami-Dade County

As sewage spill gurgles near Biscayne Bay, pipe leak looks much smaller than feared

The sewer pipe in Northeast Dade that ruptured at some point before Sunday afternoon carries 10 million gallons of raw sewage every day, but the county said Wednesday that the hole is small enough that only a fraction of that sewage is leaking into the Oleta River.

On Tuesday, the head of Miami-Dade’s Water and Sewer Department said early water-sample tests from state inspectors suggest the leak may not be massive. Director Kevin Lynskey said the waterfront of the nearby Oleta River State Park is still testing in the “safe” range, a hint that the underwater sewer spill hasn’t been large enough to foul those waters.

The spill “may be less significant than we think,” Lynskey said. He said he’s still waiting for county reports to come back from Maule Lake, a body of water just north of the spill site.

On Tuesday, a diver got the county’s first look at the spill off 2500 NE 163rd St. The spill is being allowed to continue because shutting off the sewage would mean ending water service for thousands of people in nearby cities and neighborhoods.

The diver also brought good news, said Jennifer Messemer-Skold, spokeswoman for Water and Sewer. The rupture is smaller than first feared, measuring about 1.5 inches by 2 inches on a 48-inch pipe. That makes the hole roughly the size of a golf ball. Water and Sewer estimates two days of flow through the pipe has probably yielded about 540,000 gallons of sewage pollution. That’s still a sizeable spill, but not the “millions and millions” of gallons the department first feared.

Results from Florida’s Health Department show the Oleta beach close to an unsafe level of fecal material. The state considers a score of 70 in the sampling to be unsafe, and Oleta Beach scored 68 on Monday, the Health Department said.

While even the borderline result was considered good news given fears of a massive sewage spill nearby, it was the more distant scores that suggested the rupture may not be as bad as it could have been. Beaches south of Haulover Inlet, the closest outlet to the Atlantic Ocean from the spill, measured just a 6 and the Bal Harbour beaches to the north measured 8. The scores represent particles of digestive bacteria within 100 milliliters of seawater.

County authorities issued no-swim advisories for a 40-block area around the spill, including for beaches around the Haulover Inlet. Those advisories remain in place, and Lynskey said they won’t be lifted until two days after the county can stop the ongoing sewage leak.

The rupture is estimated to be roughly 12 feet down, buried both underground and underwater as it crosses the Oleta under a bridge on 163rd, which connects the mainland with Sunny Isles Beach.

A construction crew was out on the bridge Tuesday afternoon, beginning work on the temporary, above-ground bypass pipe for a sewage pipe first installed in the 1960s and partially repaired and replaced in 1996 during a rupture in the same area. County workers blocked the right lane of the bridge so that an excavator could start to break the asphalt to let the bypass pipe go through.

Miami-Dade had planned to replace the entire pipe by 2021 as part of an ongoing upgrade for a sewer system that is under a court-ordered modernization process. While some sewer pipes are covered by the 2013 settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency, Lynskey said the damaged pipe is not part of that $1.8 billion effort.

Miami-Dade learned about the leak Sunday afternoon when a kayaker paddled past the bridge and noticed gurgling water. Patrick Brett, administrator of North Miami Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency, was with his two children around 2 p.m. when he spotted the disturbed water. He didn’t know what it was, and there were no obvious signs of a sewer spill. “I did not detect any odor,” Brett said during a telephone interview. “I didn’t notice any debris.”

Brett, a former Navy machinist, said he realized the active column of disturbed water was probably a bad development. “The gurgling didn’t subside,” Brett said. “To me, it was a warning sign.”

Brett emailed North Miami Beach officials, who then contacted Miami-Dade. Brett’s chance encounter with the gurgling water under a bridge raises the question of how long the spill had been underway before it was discovered. A pollution report filed by Miami-Dade had the spill observed at 5 p.m. Sunday, shortly after Brett sent his email at 3:16 p.m.

Florida last tested Oleta waters on Monday, Aug. 5, according to Health Department online records. The score was much lower than Tuesday’s results, measuring 35. In fact, the Oleta beaches had their worst score in months on June 18, when measurements of fecal material were measured at 71 particles per 100 milliliters of seawater.

The recurring spills due to the county’s failing infrastructure are among the key threats to the health of Biscayne Bay, and environmentalists have stepped up pressure on authorities to take corrective action. The bay is “at a tipping point’’ and “gasping for life,”’ according to a 33-page grand jury report published last week. In addition to deteriorating sewer pipes, the report cites leaking septic tanks, the Turkey Point nuclear power cooling canals, single-use plastics and marine debris among the factors that are severely damaging the bay.

“Florida’s waters and marine wildlife are already facing compounding threats from fishing pressures, climate change, and nutrient loading,” said Melissa Abdo, a conservation biologist and Sun Coast regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. “This sewage spill was a preventable disaster that may cause further strain on ecosystems.”