A Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge has issued a split decision, declining to dismiss nine of 11 charges filed against the City of Miami Beach for spilling more than 1.6 million gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay in a single year.
Judge Beatriz Butchko gave the state’s Department of Environmental Protection three weeks to present more evidence for the two claims that were partially dismissed.
The FDEP sued Miami Beach and two private contractors — A.C. Shultes of Florida and Calea Corporation — on Nov. 2, 2020 for violating the Clean Water Act by making unauthorized wastewater discharges that polluted the bay, an aquatic reserve.
The CWA is the federal law that regulates water pollution, outlawing any discharge of pollutants into navigable water without a permit. Each state enforces the CWA, fining parties related to the contamination.
The state contends the city allowed 35 unauthorized discharges, mostly through broken pipes between summer 2019 and 2020. It seeks $750,000 in fines and corrective action for the following five events:
July 31, 2019: 780,000 gallons of untreated sewage leaked from a wastewater pipe drilled by Calea Corporation — 390,000 gallons went into the bay. The city didn’t label the force main and failed to address the spill until the next day, increasing the amount of waste discharged, the lawsuit charges.
Dec 4, 2019: The city’s East Rivo Alto drawbridge sewage system discharged 3,800 gallons of sewage, all of which went into the bay off the Venetian Causeway. According to the suit, the cause for the rupture is still unknown.
March 2, 2020: The drilling company A.C. Schultes — operating under Jaffer Well Drilling — perforated a 42-inch sewer main near Lincoln Road causing a discharge of 875,000 gallons of wastewater — 713,000 gallons of which streamed into the bay.
March 5, 2020: Diverting flow from the fractured main broke two other mains: Over 20 million gallons of raw sewage leaked in 28th St. and Pine Tree Drive that lasted 18 days.
March 5, 2020: Another 665,000 gallons spilled at 72nd Street and Harding Ave. About 593,000 gallons went into the bay.
The FDEP also demanded that the city schedule sewer-system repairs during the next two years, starting with mapping and inventory of all mains, pumps and valves, then determine the nutrient load of the spills and come up with remediation plans, and finally develop a plan to prevent and respond to discharges by third parties.
Otherwise, the suit states, “the discharges of untreated wastewater from the system will continue to present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health and welfare of persons … as well as…animal, plant and aquatic life.”
If the state prevails, both private contractors would have to pay fines and submit a plan to contact all utility services in all their operating locations.
The 11 counts against the city include five for unauthorized discharges, three for exceeding water quality standards and three more for causing pollution. Contractors each face three charges. Penalties could be as high as $10,000 for each day of the discharges.
In the motion to dismiss the case, Miami Beach denies responsibility, blaming the contractors and contending it simply owns the pipes.
A.C. Shultes of Florida denies responsibility, saying the “incident occurred as a result of …natural conditions and various intervening and superseding events.” The firm also asked for more time to file evidence that the city is also at fault.
Calea Corporation has not yet responded to the suit.
The two charges questioned by Judge Butchko involve unauthorized discharge and exceeding water quality standards after the March 2 spill. She gave FDEP three weeks to re-file them.
After the March 2, 2020 spill, which is central to the litigation, the city issued a no-contact-with-water advisory due to the high levels of feces in the water. That order was lifted within days for all city waterways except the Park View Island canal near the 71st Street Causeway.
An SFMN investigation published March 17, 2021 found the Park View Island canal continues to register extreme levels of feces a year later. Though the city claims it is a result of pet waste, local scientists say the contamination is chronic, due to human waste seeping out of old, corroded sewer pipes.
Three days after SFMN published the story, Miami Beach closed a kayak launch with a metal fence — after a year of only having signs standing next to an entrance.
The City of Miami Beach closed the canal three days after SFMN published an investigation. For a year, it had only placed signs warning of the danger that were often ignored by residents.
Park View Island resident Omar Jimenez thinks the city’s closure of the canal is “too little too late.”
“The city needs to act quicker in situations that affect the health of the residents, not leave [dangerious places] open for over a year and then close them without giving residents any kind of explanation or any plan looking forward,” said Jimenez.