Poop-filled yards, and kids with “pus bumps” in Opa-locka
Every time it rains, black, untreated sewage, watery feces and wads of half-dissolved toilet paper gurgle from manholes and drains along the 2300 block of Superior Street, a residential neighborhood in Opa-locka. Yards become poop-filled moats around several homes.
Sometimes the sewer even backs up on dry days, residents say.
“You see it bubbling here and on the corner and down the street,” said Maxine Major, who has owned the house at 2320 Superior Street for 43 years. Major pointed to a manhole cover in the street directly in front of her house as the source of the toxic ooze that sometimes covers her driveway. It happens “a lot,” she said, especially in the past few years.
When the sewage begins to rise in front of her home, Major asks visitors to stay away. They can’t get from their cars to the house without tracking the sludge in, and she suffers from a chronic illness, increasing her risks from exposure to raw sewage. (Sewage can carry bacteria, viruses like meningitis, and dangerous chemicals.) Plus, Major said, the last friend who came over during a sewage backup ruined a perfectly nice pair of shoes. Not knowing what else to do with them, but not wanting to throw them away, the shoes sit bagged up in the bottom of Major’s closet.
Sometimes, the sewage is isolated to just a few properties like Major’s, but when it rains, the human waste mixes with flood water that touches every property for blocks around. (The storm water system fails to quickly drain even the lightest rain, causing ankle-high floods regularly, according to residents.)
Opa-locka public works director Airia Austin told the Miami Herald there is no sewage problem on Superior Street — at least not to his knowledge, and certainly not “a lot” of leaks, as Major and others claim. According to Austin, sewage leaks are “few and far between” in Opa-locka, with only 22 incidents reported across the city this year. But when a reporter knocked on every door along the 2300 block of Superior Street — 18 in total — the 10 residents who answered all said the same thing: Sewage backing up into the street is a huge problem and has been for years.
“If it rains heavy, it floods. It smells like sewer, like septic tanks,” said Johny St. Cloud. When that happens, his toilets don’t flush. Nor do anyone else’s on the block. In the mornings and afternoons, a yellow bus drives through on its route to deliver children to and from school. Kids at 2300 Superior Street wrinkle their noses against the smell.
The city — currently under official state of emergency for mismanagement of government agencies and budgets, especially the water and sewer utility — has failed to follow protocol and report the sewage problem to Miami-Dade County inspectors. It also failed to uphold a contract, signed with the county in 2009, that mandated the city repair and replace parts of the aging sewer system by 2014. County records show that never happened.
“The citizens of Opa-locka have been disserviced for a long time,” said former city manager Newall Daughtrey. Now, residents of Superior Street say they are living in hazardous waste, left behind by years of corruption and mismanagement.
The edges of the manhole at Superior Street and Northwest 24th Avenue are always the first to bubble, foreshadowing a serious backup to come. Sherwin Theodore rents a home on that corner. He said he watches the liquid feces creep halfway up his yard a few times a month. He just hopes it doesn’t reach his front stoop. Visible only on dry days, the storm water grate next to his driveway is plastered with regurgitated toilet paper.
Farther down the street, at the four-unit building at 2300 Superior Street, April Monroe and her 7-year-old play “hop-scotch” around the piles of human waste in the parking lot as she tries to get him to school. “You can’t even get to the car. That’s how much s--- there is,” Monroe said.
Monroe has an infant too, and worries for his health. She thinks the chlorine the city employees spread to disinfect a sewage leak may be worse than the feces. A few months ago Monroe said she ended up in the hospital with an asthma attack. She blames the frequent exposure to strong chlorine fumes that she says regularly permeate her home.
Mary Davis lives in the apartment below Monroe’s. The sewage used to back up into Davis’ home, spilling from the bathroom drains, and once, running all the way down the hall. “You hear the toilet start bubbling and the tub,” said Davis, who lives with her 9-year-old daughter and disabled brother. “The next thing you know, the doo doo — turds — all that is coming up all over the floor.”
The residents of 2300 Superior unscrewed the top of the clean-out pipe just outside Davis’ front door. Now, the sewage floods the yard and parking lot but not Davis’ apartment. But Davis still doesn’t allow her daughter to take baths any more. Just showers.
Davis also cares for her 5-year-old grandson, Cesar, after school. Any time it even looks like rain Cesar’s mom, Ceciliana Montalvo, calls Davis to see if “it is flooding again,” before she brings him to grandma’s house. “Kids need to be able to play outside,” Montalvo said. The sewage makes that impossible.
Davis’ 9-year-old, Shamiya, refuses to go outside at all, even when the poop dries up. When she does, Shamiya’s sensitive skin breaks out into what her mom describes as “pus bumps” that spread all over her body and burst into open sores when she scratches. Monroe said the same thing happens to her kids who have allergies.
Officially the city denies the chronic sewage problem, but its actions become subtle acknowledgments of some level of awareness. For years, residents of Superior Street say city inspectors have come to sprinkle powdered chlorine to disinfect each time they call about sewer backups. The city spreads chlorine “as often as necessary,” Opa-locka spokesperson James Dobson told the Herald.
If the sewage leaks are happening as residents say, Austin said, it isn’t the city’s responsibility to fix the problem. “If it’s in their yard, in most cases that’s a private situation and not the city situation,” Austin said. He blames the property owners for failure to replace old pipes, and residents for flushing things that should not be flushed.
It’s a plumbing problem
Along Superior Street, when Major or Monroe or any other residents flush their toilets, the sewage flows down iron pipes to link up with a larger clay pipe — the city’s sewer main. Gravity pulls at the sewage, routing it through the underground tunnels toward one of Opa-locka’s 19 pump stations. The pump then lifts the sewage up and out of the city’s sewer system into the county pipes to be treated at a county facility.
Maintenance of the iron pipes is the responsibility of the land owner. So are any blockages in them. The sewer main and the pump are responsibility of the city. And everything after the pump is the county’s responsibility. When someone calls in a sewage leak, city inspectors from the public works department are the first to respond.
“We send people to inspect the problem. If we find something that we can repair, then we repair it on our side,” Austin said. But they rarely do anything if the problem originates on private property.
“What would you want us to do?” Austin asked, when challenged about the health hazard the sewage causes residents, and especially children.
Carlos Hernandez, chief of the wastewater division within Miami-Dade’s Division of Environmental Resources Management, had a suggestion: “Be a public utility,” he said. “It’s not a walk-away situation, not a ‘not my fault’ kind of thing.”
If what Austin said was true, and the sewage problem was isolated to the pipes on private property, it’s the city’s responsibility to report the sewage leak to the county, according to Hernandez. County inspectors would be dispatched within hours to work with property owners to fix the problem, taking that burden off the city. (Daughtrey says in practice, the county doesn’t hold private property owners accountable.)
The city of Opa-locka never reported a single sewage leak along Superior Street to the county, according to Hernandez. And only once did Opa-locka issue a citation to a landlord for code violations related to sewage, according to the city. The 10 residents interviewed by the Miami Herald all said the sewage problem begins at the manholes in the streets — the sewage main. The city’s responsibility. Not only do the manholes back up when it rains, but also “when they don’t put the machine on,” said Danelis Perez, who owns the property at 2450 Superior Street.
Perez is referring to sewage pump station 4, located one block over on the corner of 24th Avenue and York Street. The station’s two underground pumps are supposed to lift sewage from Superior Street to the county system. If the pump station stops working, sewage begins to back up, first filling an underground spillover reservoir and then slowly making its way back up the pipes, against the flow of gravity, building up pressure. “It’s gotta come out of somewhere — homes or manholes,” Hernandez said.
Austin admitted neither pump at station 4 was functioning by the end of September, requiring Opa-locka to rent a noisy bypass pump to take over. (Daughtrey said its facility was struck by lightning.) The bypass pump was placed above ground, and sported two hoses, each placed in one of the two open sewage pits. Hernandez said the county was never informed of the issues at the pump station, nor about the use of the bypass pump, as protocol would require. The city did not specify how long it had been running the backup pump, but neighbors say it’s been months.
When a reporter visited the location in the late afternoon of Sept. 27 — the day city officials said a new, permanent pump would take the place of the bypass — no one from the city was there. A small trickle of sewage was leaking from a one of the hoses into the grass near the sidewalk. The fence around the pump was wide open, the deep sewage pits exposed. When the reporter returned Oct. 8, the bypass pump was still there, the pits and fence still open.
“That’s very scary,” Hernandez said. “If somebody falls in there, they can’t get out and they are going to drown and die.”
Hernandez suspects there are multiple causes of the sewage backups along Superior Street: the failed pump, a possible kink or sag in the 50-year-old sewage main, a root through the joint between the public and private pipes, and possibly even something on the private side.
County takes notice
Station 4 isn’t the only pump in Opa-locka that has been on total bypass in recent months without notification to the county. Pump station 8, located in the industrial zone near Ali Baba Avenue, was also down throughout the summer. Nearby standing water from heavy rains in August contained 50 times the levels of fecal matter that would close a beach. After a Miami Herald report detailing the issue, the county received an influx of complaints about raw sewage spills in the area. In a letter dated Oct. 2, DERM officials detailed 12 different occasions that feces flooded the industrial zone in recent years.
“These conditions continue to pose a significant threat to the public health, welfare, and safety due to the inadequate response of the city to remediate and prevent subsequent overflows,” wrote Lee N. Hefty, director of DERM. According to Hefty’s notice of sanitary nuisance violation, the inaction at pump station 8 violates the pump’s operating permits, the code of Miami-Dade County, and the Florida Administrative Code that protects against prolonged exposure to raw sewage.
Hernandez said what’s happening at pump station 4 sounds similar to what the county noted at pump station 8, though when a reporter called was the first time he had heard of the problem. The difference: this time, children and families live near the sewage.
“There’s a lot of issues with this utility,” Hernandez said. Only 21 percent of Opa-locka’s pump stations were in working order as of the end of August, according to county records.
In an unusual move, Hernandez has now assigned a DERM inspector exclusively to Opa-locka. “Instead of waiting for a complaint we are going to have an inspector there at all times,” Hernandez said. “What we’re doing is not typical at all,” but Hernandez said the city’s failure to report incidents left county officials few other options than to watch more closely.
The sewage leaks along Superior Street are part of a public health crisis that various officials, including public administration legend Merrett Stierheim, have been predicting for years. Stierheim oversaw the Opa-locka administration on behalf of the Florida inspector general for six months in 2016 and 2017. In his final memo to the city, Stierheim predicted a “catastrophe” if the city didn’t replace its cracked and aging sewage mains, near-defunct pumps, and all of the other drinking and storm water infrastructure in the city. According to Daughtrey, only 900 feet of 144,000 feet of sewer pipes have been replaced in the city since they were installed decades ago.
Daughtrey said now sewage leaks threaten to spring up all over the city. “We are talking about a potential hazard that could happen any day if we don’t take proactive measures to protect the city,” Daughtrey said. “But they [the commissioners] want to put their heads in the sand and pretend it’s not real.”
Daughtrey, who was fired last week, told the Miami Herald he believes his removal was backlash for placing liens against Opa-locka properties owing a total of more than $10,000 in unpaid water, sewer, and trash bills, though city commissioners gave no explanation. Daughtrey’s dismissal also came after months of pushing for an increase in the property tax rate that would have allowed the cash-strapped city to repair the sewage system.
After more than an hour of hand wringing during which Mayor Myra Taylor expressed skepticism — “I am not for increasing people’s taxes on a maybe,” she said — the commission ultimately decided on a slightly lower tax rate than Daughtrey’s recommendation, shorting his proposed budget by around $170,000 he said at the meeting.
The only guarantee now, according to Daughtrey, is that the shortage of funds in the approved budget will be reflected directly in the city’s ability to repair and replace parts of the sewer system. Property taxes are the city’s only potential source of revenue, after years of corruption and bribery schemes starved the utility of its own maintenance fund. The near-bankrupt government also siphoned money from the utility’s reserves to the general fund to cover payroll, causing the state to revoke access to a revolving loan intended for infrastructure projects. The state of emergency prevents the city from issuing bonds.
The result: There is no money for major repairs, and little for even the tiniest stopgap measures. Ultimately, the county says that’s still no excuse when there is raw sewage in the streets.
“It’s not really an option to not do anything,” Hernandez said. DERM will continue to intervene until the problem is fixed, Hernandez said, “but to get there, there has to be a process.” That process could include appealing to elected officials, or even contacting the State Attorney’s Office. And if that doesn’t work, Hernandez said, “at the end of the day, what would end up happening is the county would have to move in and do something about it physically, if the city refuses or just can’t do it for any other reason.”
While the bureaucratic process plays out, life on Superior Street continues. “We’ve got to live like we’re back there in slavery days,” with sick children in sordid conditions and impossible circumstances, Davis said. Other residents and business owners in Opa-locka have compared it to living in a Third World country.
Davis said that if she could move to a new apartment, she would. But she lives off disability checks and cannot afford the first and last months’ rent plus security deposit required to move nearly anywhere in Miami-Dade. Monroe, who was recently laid off from a temp job with the county, said she is in a similar situation. Monroe says she prays the county takes over administration of the entire city.
“This city don’t need to be Opa-locka no more,” Monroe said. “It’s too small. It ain’t worth it no more. It’s finished. They done took it to the ground.”
The original version of this article misstated the number of the pump station that serves Superior Street.