Human waste spews from broken sewer pipe off Virginia Key
A massive ocean outfall pipe intended to dump partially treated human waste in deep water far from Miami has instead been leaking in shallow water within a mile of tony Fisher Island for at least a year, an environmental group said Monday.
A Miami Waterkeeper diver sent to investigate the leak after a citizen tipped off the group recorded cloudy sewage spewing from the underground pipe earlier this month, near schools of fish and coral.
It’s not clear how much sewage is coming from the leak, but the pipe itself is capable of pumping 143 million gallons a day. On Monday, Miami Waterkeeper filed a notice of intent to sue in 60 days that cites Miami-Dade County emails saying the pipe had not been inspected in more than a decade.
“It’s extremely disappointing that the county would fail to act on this information and to allow this leak to occur for close to a year at this point,” said Waterkeeper Executive Director Rachel Silverstein. “It’s even more disappointing to find out how long its been since these outfall pipes have been inspected.”
In an emailed statement sent late Monday, a spokeswoman for the county sewer department said the agency “assessed the area of the alleged leak in 2016 and did not find any evidence of a leak at that time.”
Miami-Dade County is currently under federal orders to clean up its aging sewage treatment system as part of a $1.6 billion consent decree approved by the courts in 2014. After years of neglecting the system and problems dating back to the 1990s, federal officials ordered the county to inspect and repair about 13,000 miles of pipe and upgrade a major plant on Virginia Key, which had repeatedly spilled raw sewage into Biscayne Bay. The decree also requires the county to maintain two massive outfall pipes that dump billions of gallons of partially treated sewage about 3.6 miles offshore in 100 feet of water and report any leaks.
After the diver documented the leak, Waterkeeper obtained a county email saying a lobster fisherman first reported the broken line to water and sewer officials last August.
“Please have the dive team investigate,” operations chief Robert Fergen emailed a construction supervisor and dive inspector on Aug. 2. The county spokeswoman could not say when, where or how many inspections were done to assess the problem.
Just two months earlier in June, Richard O’Rourke, who oversees permitting for the water and sewer department, emailed his boss requesting inspections along the miles of buried pipeline, as well as a similar sized pipe from the North District treatment plant between Bal Harbour and Sunny Isles. O’Rourke said inspections had not been performed since 2006.
“Even though there is no specific requirement ... to conduct inspections of the ocean outfall discharge lines, we are under a general permit requirement and obligation to properly operate and maintain our facilities at all times,” he wrote.
Past inspections, he said, had revealed a litany of problems, including open release valves and exposed piping that is supposed to be buried to keep it from being damaged by anchors or other objects.
“Our concern is really that this is an indication of a larger problem and there are other leaks and other places where discharge is illegally being released and much closer to shore and potentially coming into contact with people and wildlife,” Silverstein said.
The massive pipes are part of an antiquated treatment system that dumped sewage offshore. Six such pipes extend from South Florida, emptying sewage from coastal communities in deep ocean water and installed long before the environmental consequences of dumping so much waste into the ocean were fully understood. Miami-Dade’s two outfalls were constructed in 1956 and 1975. In 2008, Florida lawmakers voted to ban the pipes by 2025 and require Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties to begin treating and re-using much of the waste.
It’s hard to know exactly how much sewage has been spilled or where it went. The leak is located east of Norris Cut, which runs between Fisher Island and Virginia Key, where its could potentially foul nearby beaches. The pump is permitted to dump up to 143 million gallons a day. A pipe from the north district, last inspected in 2008, can dump up to 100 million gallons a day.
The waste, which the diver said also included solids, contains fecal coliform, phosphorus, nitrogen, copper, cyanide, mercury, nickel, zinc and enterococci, a bacteria found in feces. The county spokeswoman said the sewage is treated and meets environmental requirements. However, ocean outfall water is not cleaned at the same level as sewage used to irrigate golf courses and other projects using reclaimed water. Dumping it offshore has long been blamed for worsening disease on the state’s ailing coral reefs, which have shrunk by more than 40 percent since 1996.
“It’s not anything anyone would want to come in contact with,” said Waterkeeper attorney Jim Porter. “It’s gone through secondary treatment, but that still leaves a lot of undesirable contaminants.”
The waste also contains far too many nutrients, which can upset the balance of marine life around the Bay where the habitat thrives on very little phosphorus that can trigger algae growths and seagrass die-offs.
“There’s definitely some nutrient loading,” said Waterkeeper staff attorney and program director Kelly Cox. “You can tell just because of the number of fish that are aggregating around the pipes.”
In addition to violating the Clean Water Act, Miami Waterkeeper said the county failed to follow its pollution permit or comply with the consent decree. The group notified state environmental regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency of the leak.
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