Fred Grimm

The stink Beach mayor smells isn’t a conspiracy, it’s fecal runoff

Hit piece, the mayor called it.

The Miami Herald invented a story about Miami Beach pumping polluted water into Biscayne Bay, Mayor Philip Levine charged, “in order to sell ads.”

Levine said the story was just another example of the Herald emulating the National Enquirer, because “in today’s media world,” newspaper companies are struggling. So, according to Levine’s view of modern journalism, newspapers (or at least the Miami Herald) invent disgusting stories about Miami Beach, because Miami Beach is so sexy. We fashioned a mendacious hit piece just to glom onto Miami Beach’s worldwide fame.

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City Commissioners Michael Grieco and Ricky Arriola both echoed Levine in characterizing the Herald report as a “hit piece.” Grieco suggested two motives for why we “distort the truth.” Either we’re trying to sell newspapers or we’re injecting ourselves into politics, plotting to undo the Levine regime.

Me, I’ve never paid much attention to either circulation figures or advertising sales, but I’m guessing our major advertisers would not be so enthused about display ads next to a story about human and canine waste flushed into the bay. As for newspaper sales, well, if we were going to stoop to outright fiction, an invasion of teenage zombie strippers might attract more readers than a surge in the fecal coliform count.

The offending story, the so-called hit piece, was based on something called: “Case Study of Miami Beach with Implications for Sea Level Rise and Public Health.” Apparently, the Herald conspired with researchers from Florida International University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University to conjure up the notion that when Miami Beach’s new water pumps flush away tidal floodwater during king tides, the fecal bacteria count spikes to more than 600 times the acceptable limits. “It’s sloppy journalism; sloppy science,” Levine said. (City Attorney Raul J. Aguila sent a letter to the Herald, demanding a retraction. Editor Mindy Aminda Marqués Gonzalez refused, noting that his complaint “fails to point to a single factual error.”)

Such a finding can’t be that much of a surprise. As the University of Miami geologist Harold Wanless told me Thursday, all of South Florida is plagued with leaky sewers and funky septic tanks. Factor in flood waters and, well, what comes out is not going to be pretty.

The mayor, however, decided that not only had the Herald fabricated a Miami Beach hit piece to sell ads, but the lead FIU scientist, geochemist Henry Briceño, had contrived the offending data for his own greedy purposes — to wangle a testing contract out of the city.

Levine similarly ascribed a motive of profit to Wanless, who has been warning South Florida governments for years that rising sea levels associated with climate change will cause havoc with our local infrastructure.

Levine said Professor Wanless had lent his support to the FIU findings because it “helps him sell books, helps him go out the speaker circuit.” Except Wanless has no books for sale. He told me Thursday that he charges no fees for his speaking engagements.

It’s the kind of tactic you might expect from oil state yahoos like Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, whose climate denial is based on the premise that those lying scientists make stuff up for federal grants. Or from Gov. Rick Scott, Florida’s climate change denier in chief. But progressive Miami Beach?

Wanless shrugged off the reaction. Local governments, he said, are stunned by the huge cost of dealing with rising water levels. Miami Beach, which is spending hundreds of millions to install a series of pumps to ward off the threatening seas, now faces the added expense of treating the bacteria in the discharged water. “It’s not a big surprise,” Wanless said. “It’s silly to deny this.”

South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard supported the study. “I know the scientists and I know the science,” said Stoddard, a biology professor at FIU and one of South Florida’s leading voices about the implications of climate change. “The science is not a lie.”

He said Miami Beach’s new pumps were flushing water laden with bacteria. The study, he said, found much of that bacteria was “coming from the human gut.” It’s that simple. Stoddard said Miami Beach leaders know they’ve got to repair its sewage system. But they’re more concerned that the report and the newspaper story might damage the tourist town’s swanky image. “So they’ve attacked the messengers.”

And attack they did, going after the Herald and the scientists and trying to undermine their findings. That was the real hit job.