Construction site wastewater contributing to Biscayne Bay problems

Resolution passed by Miami City Commission aims to raise penalties on those dumping into street drains

MIAMI, Fla. – Sediment is a contributing factor say water quality experts in the on-going fight to save Biscayne Bay. Since this summer’s historic fish kill, a new resolution passed by the Miami City Commission on Thursday directs the city manager to investigate options to enhance penalties for construction permit holders caught violating code by dumping wastewater from construction sites into streets.

Those dumping wastewater, which funnels through storm drains into Biscayne Bay would face steep fines. Dredging and building-development sediment blocks light and makes it difficult for seagrass to grow, according to Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper.

“We have lost 80 percent of seagrass in some parts of Biscayne Bay,” Silverstein said.

“Like around the Julia Tuttle basin where we also happened to see this fish kill recently,” she said. “You lose the seagrass you lose the eco-system.”

Construction debris dumped in city streets settles into storm drains where the sediment ultimately makes its way into an already vulnerable Biscayne Bay. Other contributing polluting factors include septic tanks, sewage leaks, fertilizer and storm runoff.

In scuba gear, Silverstein dives to the bottom of the Bay where she shows dredging sediment from one project they’ve connected to the Port Miami expansion.

Since the massive fish kill, she is also fielding citizen reports of building development sediment that shade and smother the seagrass.

“We are absolutely getting flooded with reports of pollution and many of these incidents are coming from construction sites so we are getting lots of reports of sediment plumes getting out into the water, we are getting reports of illegal dumping,” Silverstein said.

“On a large-scale development, a thousand bucks for illegally dumping into the Bay is nothing — it is the cost of business. We need to up those penalties to actually deter bad behavior,” said Miami Commissioner Ken Russell.

Russell introduced the resolution that unanimously passed Thursday, which instructs the city manager to investigate increasing penalties for construction permit holders. If they are caught violating code by dumping wastewater from construction sites into streets, the sites could be shutdown as part of the penalty.

“The thing that will absolutely change behavior is if we shut down constructions sites if they dump illegally into the Bay. If we say, ‘You have to shut down this site until we assess the damage and assess your practices.’ The time, value and money lost on construction will change their habits.”

Russell said the city manager is next going to return with legal options of what can be done.

“Some of it may be able to be done administratively so that could even happen soon, but if legislation is needed at that point, we will bring an ordinance to change the code,” he said.

Silverstein believes there is tight connection between development and water quality.

“All of these developers who are developing beautiful properties along the waterways really need the water to be clean and beautiful for people to want to live there,” she said.

About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."