About 875,000 gallons of raw sewage spewed into storm drains after a subcontractor ruptured a pipe in South Beach last week.
Then another pipe burst in two places under the increased pressure.
In all, 1.4 million gallons of dirty water seeped into Biscayne Bay and some of the city’s waterways, the city said Wednesday.
The breaks forced the city to issue an advisory to avoid recreational water activities on the west coast of the island due to high levels of fecal bacteria in the water.
That advisory remained in place in two areas of the city on Wednesday, more than a week after the initial March 2 break. The spill has been contained but the concentration of fecal bacteria is still high in the bay waters west of Normandy Isle and the waterway adjacent to Parkview Island Park.
While Public Works Director Roy Coley said contractor negligence caused the first break, the older age of the second pipe played a role in the domino effect of the subsequent ruptures.
“It’s kind of unfair to blame the old pipe,” he said. “Certainly it’s part of the problem.”
The incidents brought questions about the city’s aging pipes into stark relief. Just days before the rupture, Coley had asked city commissioners for $122 million over the next five years to fix “critical” issues with the water and sewer system.
Most of the pipes are 50 to 80 years old, but some components date back to the incorporation of the city more than 100 years ago, Coley said.
“These are all components that due to their age or their actual condition are at a high likelihood of failure or a higher likelihood,” Coley told the Finance and Economic Resiliency Committee on Feb. 28. “If we don’t do these items, the result is we’re going to have a higher risk of catastrophic failures.”
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“We’re going to be Fort Lauderdale,” interjected Commissioner Ricky Arriola, the committee’s chair. He was referring to a series of nearly a dozen high-profile breaks in the Broward County city between December and February.
“It could happen,” Coley said.
The finance committee conceptually recommended the City Commission approve Coley’s request to fund the city’s water and sewer master plan and earmarked about $24 million in unallocated bonds to get started on the renovations, after details are worked out. Higher rates could be one source of money as well. The plan still needs approval by the City Commission, which will probably hear it in April.
That all happened Feb. 28. On March 2, a 42-inch wastewater force main on Michigan Avenue and 17th Street just north of Lincoln Road ruptured. That break led to two additional breaks March 5.
And while subcontractor Jaffer Well Drilling caused the first break, Coley said the more than 50-year-old 30-inch wastewater force main that received the main pipe’s additional flow would have fared better if it were newer.
That second pipe broke in two places at 28th Street and Pine Tree Drive, and at 72nd Street and Harding Avenue. Repairs are ongoing on the site of the 30-inch pipe’s first break on 28th Street. The pipe that broke first was fixed on Friday.
Jaffer Well Drilling had been working for contractor Hy-Power, which was hired to install a dewatering well for Florida Power and Light on Michigan Avenue. The subcontractor drilled outside a zone delineated with markings to show the presence of utility lines, Coley said.
While the city’s fiscal year 2020 budget includes $26.5 million in water and sewer projects, Coley said that in the last five years only $50 million has been allocated toward water and sewer needs.
“One hundred percent of this is playing catch-up,” Coley said during the committee meeting. “We’ve been spending the last few years chasing what we thought were emergency conditions nonstop and all of these are things that probably should have been addressed over the past decades and have got us on the verge of perhaps being one of those communities that starts having more broken-line days than nonbroken-line days like some of our neighbors.”
The city’s aging infrastructure is similar to a larger — and more troubled — system in Miami-Dade County, which is under federal court orders to replace treatment plants and pipes following a 2014 settlement with federal regulators after a series of sewer overflows.
Commissioner Mark Samuelian, a member of the committee, told the Miami Herald on Monday that he was “concerned” about the sewage break and confident Coley would get the money he requested.
“It’s something that we need to move quickly on,” he said. “It’s hard to argue with the logic that if you have some infrastructure that’s some 80 years old, it needs to be updated.”