Hialeah water plant’s long delay upsets Miami-Dade commissioner

Last October, politicians celebrated the opening of a new Hialeah water plant by clinking glasses and drinking up.

It struck some of those in attendance as a taste of the water flowing through the new facility.

But the water didn’t come from the plant. It came, according to Miami-Dade County, from a bottle.

At the time the plant was inaugurated, a week before city elections, the plant wasn’t processing any water, though it was due to start a few days later. Eight months later, it still isn’t.

Hialeah and Miami-Dade water and sewer administrators in charge of the joint project were aware of its various delays. But the delays came as news to County Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, who said the county staff should have kept elected officials better-informed. He said he learned of the problems at an out-of-state event.

“I don’t think we should have found out the way we found out,” Zapata, chairman of an infrastructure committee, told the department’s director Wednesday.

No one has had dry taps as a result of the stalled water plant. Originally scheduled to open in 2012, it was built in an annexed area northwest of Hialeah — west of Interstate 75 and north of 138th Street — as a way to prepare for future development. The economic recession and successful water-conservation efforts slowed growth. Residents have continued to be served by existing facilities.

The new plant, which could eventually process 17.5 million gallons of water a day, started pumping water late last year. Customers quickly complained it was cloudy and smelly. Operators shut down the plant, tweaked the treatment process and received permission from the health department to start up again in May, according to Armando Vidal, Hialeah’s public works director.

A final test was pushed back recently by a pair of busted valves, he said. Once the valves are repaired, the test could take place as early as next month.

Bill Johnson, the county’s water and sewer director, sent the plant’s 16,000 county customers a letter Monday notifying them that their water would come from the new plant soon.

“As your water service is transitioned to the new facility over the next few weeks, you may notice a different smell and/or taste in the drinking water delivered to your home,” Johnson wrote. “The dissimilar taste is due to the different mineral content of this water. However, please be assured that the water undergoes full treatment and meets the same drinking water standards applied to the previous source of supply.”

The new plant draws water not from the Biscayne Aquifer, which supplies most local facilities, but from the Floridan Aquifer, which is deeper underground. The deeper water is brackish and treated using a process known as reverse osmosis to take out salt and minerals. Plants in North Miami Beach and the Florida Keys rely on the same technology. (Biscayne Aquifer water undergoes a different treatment, known as lime softening, to remove impurities.)

Hialeah and Miami-Dade split the cost of the $100 million plant. The city hired contractor Inima USA Construction Corp., a Spanish firm that will operate the plant as part of a public-private partnership. Inima partnered with another company, AECOM, to design and build it.

Last month, the county awarded AECOM a five-year, $91-million contract to manage $1.6 billion in federally mandated sewer improvements. At no point in the protracted fight between the company and a competitor did the Hialeah plant come up as a point of contention because, as far as the county and Hialeah are concerned, the firm has done nothing wrong in the water project.

“Water and Sewer has not taken a position that there is a problem,” said Lester Sola, who heads the county’s contracting department.

City and county officials dedicated the plant on Oct. 27, eight days before a Hialeah election in which Mayor Carlos Hernández and two City Council members comfortably won reelection. The ceremony was merely intended to mark the completion of the building’s construction, Vidal said.

“We have not paid for any water,” he said.

Both the city and the contractor made claims back and forth over the delays. As part of a settlement reached in April, the city and county will be responsible for paying the contractor $2.7 million. Part of the delay was caused by the city’s having trouble securing public rights-of-way for the water plant’s underground wells.

The settlement called for the plant to be processing water by last Friday. For each day it doesn’t, the contractor will have to pay a $10,000 penalty.

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Enrique Flor contributed to this report.