Oleta River Sewer Spill Grows As Workers Race To Fix It

Aug 16, 2019

A crack in a half-century old iron sewer pipe has grown and could keep leaking for up to three weeks while workers struggle to fix it, Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Director Kevin Lynskey said Friday.

The break, discovered by a kayaker Sunday, has so far spilled more than a million gallons of sewage into the Oleta River where the pipe is buried in the river bottom. When workers tried to plug the brittle pipe this week, the crack grew by about 50 percent, he said.

Workers are also trying to divert the sewage to another line. But the interceptor infrastructure  - installed after road workers broke the pipe in 1996 - is also in danger of failing, he said.

An image from drove video shows air bubbles that alerted a kayaker to the sewage spill Sunday.
Credit Miami Waterkeeper

It's unclear how long the fix will take. Workers need to shut down the line to divert it. But the line can only be shut off once every 24 hours to avoid back-ups and service shutdowns in Sunny Isles Beach, Golden Beach and parts of North Miami Beach. Because the pipe is so fragile, trying to plug it could cause the crack to grow.

"Best case is in the next two or three days, in one of these windows, we have success. Best case would be three in the morning tonight [Friday]," he said. "Worst case is not so great, where it could be three weeks."

The 48-inch pipe was installed in 1966 and on a typical day carries about 10 million gallons of sewage. It was scheduled to be replaced next year as part of a $1.6 billion, 15-year overhaul of the system under a 2013 settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The settlement, known as a consent decree, stems from violations and harmful leaks in the aging system dating back to 1994. 

About $437 million in projects required under the day are nearing completion, according the most recent court-ordered update. Another 40 projects expected to cost $1.37 billion are in the midst of being contracted.

Much of that work, Lynskey said, focused on treatment facilities and pump stations - not the 3,000- plus miles of gravitiy pipes that carry raw sewage, including this pipe.

Only a tenth of the underground pipes are inspected every year, meaning sewer officials rely on changes in flow amounts to detect leaks. Pipes that cross wellfields and drinking water supplies are inspected every five years.

"Unfortunately, they kind of discover themselves because by the time they get to a size not much bigger than a golf ball...you start getting some unfortunate things up top," Lynskey said.

More inspections should be done, said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, which runs a volunteer citizen-reporting program.

"Ideally, there wouldn't be spills. There would be regular inspections," she said.

Two years ago, the nonprofit threatened to sue the county after a citizen complained about a break in an ocean outfall pipe. The citizen had reported the leak to the county nearly a year earlier. After Miami Waterkeeper sent a diver to shoot video and threatened to sue, the county repaired the line, which carries treated sewage. The pipe had not been inspected in more than a decade. It's due to be shut down in 2025.

"There needs to be more internal checks and balances to make sure these leaks aren't going until somebody happens to notice them," she said.

Advisories remain place warning people to stay clear of water between Maule Lake and the Intracoastal and south to between Haulover Inlet and the mainland. Waters at Oleta River State Park, Greynolds Park and the beach near Haulover Inlet also remain off-limits.