Health Emergency in Opa-locka
It happened again Thursday night. Residents of Superior Street in Opa-locka found themselves walking through their own feces after the city’s sewer pump stopped working, flooding streets and yards with gray water.
Friday morning, Mary Davis found a perfectly intact, light brown “turd” under her car, where it landed after being belched along with soggy toilet paper from the nearby clean-out pipe on her property. Her yard was still covered in inches of sewage water. The smell of human waste in that concentration burns in the back of the throat and corners of the eyes. Residents say it’s like this every few weeks.
“It’s nasty,” Davis said. “That’s not a place for nobody to be living in this kind of condition, especially when you’ve got children.”
In the past, the city denied a chronic sewage problem exists on Superior Street. Public Works Director Airia Austin said that any sewage problems are the fault of individual property owners and residents, despite evidence and testimony to the contrary. “If it’s in their yard, in most cases that’s a private situation and not the city situation,” Austin told the Herald a few weeks ago.
But the city can’t deny responsibility this time. The external bypass pump running at Pump Station 4 — the lift station that moves sewage from Superior Street to the county system for treatment — stopped working when the battery died, causing the back-up Thursday night, according to the repairman on site Friday morning. The pump is the city’s responsibility to maintain and repair.
The repairman, who works for a third party contractor that rented the bypass pump to the city after the permanent pumps stopped working last month, told the Miami Herald he replaced the battery around 11 a.m. on Friday. The pump immediately began doing its job again. Waste began to be pumped to the country for treatment. The sewage started to drain from the streets. It stopped bubbling up in Davis’ yard. After the sun dries up the water, just the piles of poop and toilet paper will remain.
But there was another problem. The hose connecting the pump to the sewage well sprung a leak. Gray water was spewing out onto York Street, one block over from Superior. Any exposure to a raw sewage leak is considered a significant health hazard and an emergency situation by the state and county health departments. Florida law requires the person or entity responsible to immediately disinfect and then implement a plan to address the cause of the problem.
“Obviously waste water is something that none of us should come in contact with, especially the elderly or the young,” said Carlos Hernandez, director of the waste water department within the county’s Department of Environmental Resources and Management. “It contains things from bacteria, to viruses, to chemicals that you don’t want to come into contact with. It’s something that should concern everybody.”
When a reporter asked city officials to answer questions regarding the city’s failure to report chronic sewage problems to county officials, the city’s plan to fix this problem permanently and what residents should do in the meantime to stay healthy, the Opa-locka spokesman responded with a single line email.
“We are diligently working with various agencies including DERM to address all concerns,” wrote spokesman James Dobson. The acting city manager refused to answer the Herald’s questions, even after a reporter went to city hall in person.
Former city administrators have been predicting a health “catastrophe” related to the total failure of the city’s aging sewer system for decades. Instead of addressing the problem, city officials moved money away from the sewer fund and into the general fund in order to make payroll during months where the city was operating in the red.
Opa-locka has been on the verge of bankruptcy for years, and is currently under a state of emergency, mandated by Gov. Rick Scott, for mismanagement and financial insolvency. Since 2013, the FBI has investigated bribery and extortion schemes at city hall, for which seven people, including the former city manager and a city commissioner, have already pleaded guilty.