Miami-Dade County taking critical steps to stop human waste from seeping into waterways

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Last week, Local 10 News reported on fish in South Florida waters that are swimming around in a cocktail of drugs, a direct result of human waste leaching into our waterways.

“These bonefish most certainly have pharmaceuticals,” said FIU PhD candidate and researcher Nick Castillo. “And it’s not just one, two or three. The average is seven drugs.”

It was an alarming discovery.

A potpourri of drugs found in our coastal fish. Pharmaceuticals and medications we take every day and are still very present in our waste.

“Our body necessarily doesn’t use a lot and we excrete it out,” said Castillo. “Those are the drugs that we’re finding. Tylenol even.”

The findings are the result of a 2019 study conducted by scientists from FIU Fisheries lab, confirming that human waste is still making its way into the bay and ocean.

“The end of the pipe is always here, Biscayne Bay, the ocean really,” said Castillo.

Miami-Dade County has been under the gun to address the issue.

In 2013, the county was sued by the EPA and entered into a $1.6 billion consent decree to fix its aging sewer system, a 15-year mandate to upgrade the county’s treatment plants and pump stations and replace over-burdened pipes.

Miami-Dade Water Sewer Dept. Director Roy Coley is leading the charge.

“We are now more than 80% complete with the consent order,” he said. “And we anticipate finishing all of the required projects of the consent order, at least months in advance of the required cut off in 2028.”

This a priority of Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s agenda.

The fish kills in Biscayne Bay caused by excess nutrient pollution kicked everything into high gear.

“I think we are moving at lightning speed,” said Levine Cava. “We’ve done a billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure changes just on water and sewer in since I’ve come on board as mayor, and half a million this year alone.”

Since 2013, 200 miles of existing wastewater pipe have been rehabilitated, while 80 miles of pipes have been replaced and 275 miles of new pipes have been installed.

“We do have underground pipes that are just aging,” said Coley. “They’re 100 years old, or 80 years old, or 60 years old, and those pipes need to be replaced and rehabilitated.”

What’s more, Coley said Miami-Dade is on track to meet the state mandated deadline to stop the dumping of millions of gallons of wastewater into the ocean by 2025.

Pump stations that were sending water out three miles offshore into the ocean are now sending it down into wells.

Deep injection wells, 3,000 feet underground, like the one at the Central Wastewater Treatment Plant on Virginia Key that can take 20 million gallons of wastewater a day.

It’s one of two already operational there. Another one is under construction. When the project is complete there will be six at the site.

“Our south district plant is 100% all injection,” said Coley.

Soon the north district plan will be too.

In February, the south district plant also got its first upgrade in thirty years, expanding its capacity to treat sewage by 16% and can now treat more than 131 gallons of wastewater a year.

“The level of investment we’re making in the water and wastewater systems has never been done before, and we’re accelerating,” said Coley.

Miami-Dade’s Connect to Protect is also advancing: a multiyear program to connect properties on septic tanks to sewer service.

“There’s 120,000 septic tanks in the county,” said Coley. “Of those 120,000, 9,000 have been identified as either compromised or failing.”

The project was launched last year in Miami’s Little River neighborhood, where the majority of septic tanks are failing.

Officials say 11,000 parcels on septic tanks have already begun the process of linking up to sewer lines.

By the end of this year, 200 will be connected and another 200 will have the ability to do so.

“I think ultimately it will really help the environment,” said Little River resident Richard Wallace, who recently made the connection to sewer service. “This is vital work, for the future.”

Added Levine Cava: “The community really, really gets it. Tragedy creates opportunity, and the fish kill that summer truly brought increased awareness and a sense that we ignore this at our peril.”

The county wants to stress the importance of property owners still on septic tanks to connect to sewer lines as soon as they’re made available.

As the sea level rises, so does our ground water, dislodging many of the septic tanks and causing them to fail, and then all that raw sewage just seeps into our groundwater and our bay. They really are ticking time bombs.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.