Florida Department of Environmental Protection Sues Miami Beach and Two Contractors Over Sewage Spills

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Sues Miami Beach and Two Contractors Over Sewage Spills:

Filing says there have been 35 “unauthorized discharges” in the City since January 2019

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is asking the Miami-Dade 11th Circuit Court to order Miami Beach “to develop and implement a comprehensive emergency contingency plan” for responding to future sewage discharges after what the filing claims have been 35 “unauthorized discharges” of untreated wastewater from the City’s wastewater treatment system since January 2019. The State is also seeking an order for the City “to undertake an expeditious repair and rehabilitation program of the System.”  

Without injunctive relief, the Department (DEP) says, “[T]he discharges of untreated wastewater from the System will continue to present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health and welfare of persons who use local surface waters for recreational and commercial purposes, as well as present the threat of irreparable injury to human health, waters, and property, including animal, plant and aquatic life of the state.”

According to the court filing, Miami Beach has 122 miles of sanitary sewer pipes and 3,160 sanitary sewer manholes. 

Among the “unauthorized discharges,” the suit lists five specific instances – four totalling 2,323,800 gallons, of which the State says, nearly 1.7 million gallons ended up in Biscayne Bay. A fifth discharge of 20,520,000 gallons over an 18-day period did not go into the Bay.

July 31, 2019: Calea Corporation, “while performing a directional bore at 5th Street and Michigan Avenue, struck a force main, resulting in the unauthorized discharge of 780,000 gallons of untreated wastewater from the City’s System over a 2-day period.” The filing states 390,000 gallons ended up discharged into Biscayne Bay. 

“The City failed to adequately mark the location of the force main,” according to the suit.

“Following the July Discharge Calea made multiple attempts to contact the City, who did not respond. Calea thereafter abandoned the location of the unauthorized discharge,” the filing claims. “The City did not respond to the July Discharge until August 1, 2019, thereby increasing the amount of untreated wastewater discharged.”

Water sampling in Biscayne Bay “revealed exceedances above the maximum allowable concentration” of the bacteria enterococci from August 1 through August 5, 2019. A swim advisory was issued for Biscayne Bay and the City’s southernmost beaches from August 1 through 8 as a result.

In a letter to City Commissioners on August 3, City Manager Jimmy Morales noted “On Wednesday evening (July 31), a private contractor working for the utility Crown Castle impacted a 54-inch sanitary sewer main near the intersection of 5th Street and Michigan Avenue. Despite hitting the force main twice, the contractor left the area without alerting anyone. This incident caused the release of wastewater onto the streets and into Biscayne Bay. As part of the investigation of the incident, the city contracted Crown Castle as they had a right-of-way permit for work in the area and their contractor confirmed that they were responsible for the damage.”

Morales wrote, after receiving initial reports of the sewage spill around midnight on Wednesday, the City “immediately began investigating the source to stop the discharge. The spillage was confirmed stopped around 8 a.m. Thursday morning when the impacted area was identified. In 2017, the city built a second large diameter sewage force main on Euclid Avenue as a fail-safe. As a result of this addition, the team was able to redirect flows to the Euclid pipeline – significantly reducing the amount of time the damage line leaked. Once stopped, the city immediately began cleaning the area that was potentially affected using three city contractors plus city-owned trucks. These efforts prevented additional wastewater from reaching the bay.”

The second discharge mentioned in the State DEP’s suit occurred on December 4, 2019, when there was an unauthorized discharge of 3,800 gallons of untreated wastewater from the City’s system at the East Rivo Alto Drawbridge. The suit claims all of those 3,800 gallons were discharged into Biscayne Bay.

Then, on March 2, 2020, “A.C. Schultes, while drilling a well at 1665 Michigan Avenue, struck a force main, resulting in the unauthorized discharge of 875,000 gallons of untreated wastewater from the City’s System… Of the 875,000 gallons from the March 2 Discharge, 713,000 gallons of untreated wastewater discharged into Biscayne Bay,” according to the suit. Water sampling after that spill also “revealed exceedances above the maximum allowable concentration of enterococci” and a swim advisory was issued.

Following that spill, Morales sent a letter to Commissioners stating “Jaffer Well Drilling, a sub-contractor for Hy-Power, impacted a 42-inch sanitary sewer main near the intersection of 17 Street and Lincoln Road. This incident caused the release of wastewater onto the streets and into the stormwater system. The city was alerted of the damage on Monday around midnight and immediately mobilized crews to minimize the amount of discharge and contain the break. The spillage was confirmed stopped at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. Once stopped, the city immediately began gleaning the area that was potentially affected.” Ric-Man Construction Florida removed the damaged pipe and installed a new one. The City implemented a swim advisory for parts of the Collins Canal following the spill.

Finally, the DEP filing states, “In March 2020 the City diverted the flow of untreated wastewater within the System, and the subsequent change in pressure caused breaks in the force main resulting in two discharges on March 5, 2020.”

“The first discharge of untreated wastewater came from a break in the force main at 28th Street and Pine Tree Drive resulting in an unauthorized discharge of 20,520,000 gallons of untreated wastewater over an eighteen-day period from the City’s System.” The filing does not indicate any of that discharge went into the Bay.

“The second discharge of untreated wastewater came from a break in the force main at 72nd Street and Harding Avenue which resulted in an unauthorized discharge of 665,000 gallons of untreated wastewater over a two-day period from the City’s System… Of the 665,000 gallons from the 72nd Street Discharge, 593,000 gallons of untreated wastewater discharged into Biscayne Bay.” Water sampling following that discharge also found high levels of enterococci from March 5 through August 9, 2020 and a no swim advisory was placed in effect for the area.

Among the injunctive relief the suit is asking for is “the existing schedule for repair, upgrade, or replacement” of the wastewater “Collection System assets during the next 2 years,” development and submission of a “Mapping and Inventory Plan” of the system, a condition assessment, and the response plan for discharge events.

City Public Works Director Roy Coley discussed the City’s Water and Wastewater Master Plan developed with consultant Hazen and Sawyer at the City Commission’s Finance and Economic Resiliency Committee in February. The 25-year plan, he noted, includes a mapping of the City's system and an "assessment of the condition of our system components." In addition, Coley said, a five-year list of critical needs had been identified – critical he said, because “due to their age or their actual condition [the components] are at a high likelihood of failure or a higher likelihood.”

Regarding the wastewater system, he cited “components that are simply beyond their useful life,” many of which are 80 plus years old with “some dat[ing] back to the inception of our City” more than 100 years ago.

Overall, Coley said, those upgrades will cost about $122 million. “From our professional judgement, these are must-do and that if we don’t do these items, the result is we are going to have a higher risk of catastrophic failures.”

“We’re going to be Fort Lauderdale,” Commissioner Ricky Arriola said, referring to multiple recent sewer main breaks there.

“It could happen,” Coley responded. “We have some of those risks today and those risks are growing as every day goes past and we need to attack this very diligently.” At the time, he cited a $60 million gap in funding that will need to be identified.

While some of the unauthorized discharges in the State’s lawsuit involve contractors hitting sewer mains during construction, others may have been caused by the system’s age.

“We’ve been spending the last few years chasing what we thought were emergency conditions non-stop,” Coley told the Finance Committee in February. “And all of these are things that probably should have been addressed over the last decades and has got us on the verge of perhaps being one of those communities that starts having more broken-line-days than non-broken-line days like some of our neighbors so it’s 100 percent catch-up but it’s on us to do it.”

In addition to developing and implementing a comprehensive emergency contingency plan for responding to future sewage discharges and “a repair and rehabilitation program” for the wastewater treatment system, the court filing seeks $10,000 per day in civil penalties for violations by the City and contractors Calea and A.C. Schultes.

A City spokeswoman said, “The City has not been served with the Complaint, and therefore; is unable to provide any commentary regarding this matter.”

The A.C. Schultes Florida office directed this reporter to an email for Najib “Duke” Halwani, president of Jaffer Well Drilling, a division of A.C. Schultes. As of publication, there has been no response.

Calea Corporation is listed in the State’s Sunbiz registry as having an office in Hialeah, however, we were unable to locate contact information to seek comment.

Photo of 72nd Street spill courtesy Bibi Andrade

 

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