With sewage spewing close to coast, Miami-Dade will fast-track repair of massive pipe

Miami Waterkeeper found a leak in a massive sewage outfall last July less than a mile from Virginia Key.
Miami Waterkeeper found a leak in a massive sewage outfall last July less than a mile from Virginia Key. Miami Waterkeeper

Miami-Dade County began taking emergency action Tuesday to address reports of a leak in its massive sewage outfall pipe near Virginia Key and Fisher Island, a day after an environmental group said officials had ignored the problem for a year.

Water and sewer officials met Tuesday afternoon to fast-track hiring a contractor to make repairs while environmental staff began testing water, a spokeswoman said.

On Monday, Miami Waterkeeper released county emails showing that a lobsterman had reported the leak in an outfall pipe at the Central District water and sewer treatment plant in 17 feet of water within a mile of Virginia Key last August. The pipe, capable of pumping 143 million gallons of sewage a day, is supposed to dump the waste at least 3.5 miles from shore in water 100 feet deep.

County officials said they investigated the leak and found nothing. But last month, after getting a tip from a citizen, Miami Waterkeeper sent a diver, who found and videotaped a cloud of waste spewing from the buried pipe.

County officials did not respond to a request for details about when and where divers looked for the leak, and spokeswoman Jennifer Messemer-Skold said officials were only notified of the new findings on Monday. But Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Silverstein said the group had inquired after it got the tip and submitted records requests.

“If we had discovered the leak and realized the county didn’t know about it, we would have obviously notified them. But when we realized the county had known for a year, we thought legal action was appropriate,” she said. “Us notifying them about a leak they’ve known about for a year wasn’t going to get the leak fixed.”

On Monday, the group filed a notice of intent to sue, citing violations of the Clean Water Act, state rules and a federal consent decree hammered out in 2014 that requires the county to fix and maintain its aging sewer system. In addition to the reported leak, the county has not inspected either the Central District pipe, or another massive pipe at its North District plant south of Sunny Isles Beach, in more than a decade.

The two pipes, along with four others in South Florida, are part of an antiquated disposal system that dates back to the 1950s before the environmental hazards from dumping waste offshore were fully understood. In 2008, lawmakers ordered them shut down by 2025.

virginia key sewer plant
An aerial view of the Central District Wastewater Treatment Plant in Virginia Key in March 2016. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Routine testing of water near beaches has not shown any “non-compliance,” Messemer-Skold said. However, the beach closest to the leak, Virginia Key, is not tested and, according to the Florida Department of Health beach monitoring website, at least one beach on Key Biscayne reported poor conditions five times since September. The partially treated sewage typically contains fecal coliform, enterococci, phosphorus, nitrogen, cyanide and other chemicals that might pose health threats or damage the ecosystem.

To get a better idea of where the spill might be moving, the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science plans to release drifters used in the BP oil spill next week, spokeswoman Diana Udel said. The GPS-tracked drifters are part of an ongoing project to track garbage in the bay.

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