Sewage leak 'time bomb' in Biscayne Bay
By Lou Ortiz
An underwater sewer pipe stretching from Fisher Island to Miami Beach is so fragile, old and worn that a county official called it a ticking "time bomb" that could rupture and spill millions of gallons of raw sewage in the area, resulting in devastating consequences to tourism and the local economy.
"The pipe is about to burst," John W. Renfrow, director of Miami-Dade County's Water and Sewer Department (WASD), told the county commission last week. "We're facing a catastrophic event if this happens."
"I don't know when it's going to blow," he said. "[But] we can't afford any delay."
Mr. Renfrow told commissioners the county must do something immediately and that the best option called for paying the current contractor an additional $22 million on top of the firm's current county contract of $54 million to fix the problem.
In April 2011, Michigan-based Ric-Man Construction, which has offices in Deerfield Beach, was awarded a contract for $54,892,728 to replace a 54-inch main sewer pipe from Fisher Island to south of the City of Miami Beach, under Government Cut Channel, county documents show.
The project also included replacing a 20-inch water main from Port Island to Fisher Island under the Fisherman's Channel. That replacement was completed and placed into service in April.
Both projects were undertaken because the pipes were in the dredging route of the new 50-foot-deep channels for PortMiami. Dredging, which will allow the port to accommodate bigger cargo ships and is tied to the expansion of the Panama Canal, is expected to start in 2013.
But severe problems were found with the sewer pipe after construction was completed on two shafts on Fisher Island and a marine (retrieval) shaft south of Miami Beach that "would have served to connect to the existing 54-inch sewer force main that runs landward to the interconnection of Miami Beach's sewer force main," according to county documents.
On July 17, Mr. Renfrow told commissioners that in December new underwater technology found the problem with the sewer pipe, which was deeded to the county by the City of Miami Beach in 1979.
"In December of 2011, when specialized testing equipment became available, WASD had the existing 54-inch sewer force main inspected from the Central District Wastewater Treatment Plant at Virginia Key to the point of interconnection to the City of Miami Beach's sewer force main," Deputy Mayor Alina T. Hudak, wrote in a July 17 memorandum to the commission.
"The inspection revealed that several segments of the existing pipeline between the marine shaft … and the interconnection to Miami Beach's sewer system are in a severely distressed condition and in imminent danger of failure," she wrote.
Since the pipe is unusable, the contractor will lay 1,280 linear feet of new pipe from the sewer main on Fisher Island to the sewer main in Miami Beach. The easement site for the project is in South Pointe Park.
"The terms being negotiated at this time include the hours of operation at South Pointe Park, the restoration costs of the site, the scope of risk assumed by the county and the terms of indemnification to the City of Miami Beach, which includes possible hazardous substances encountered at the site," county documents say.
As a result, the department will add "approximately 1,280 linear feet of sewer pipe and providing for an interconnection point at Fisher Island," Ms. Hudak wrote.
Both original projects were scheduled for completion by Jan. 17, 2013. The emergency work extends the deadline to Aug. 15, 2013.
Despite the urgency voiced by Mr. Renfrow and County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Commissioner Barbara Jordan questioned the price of the change order and the need to enlist the current contractor, instead of bidding the project anew.
"The cost concerns me. Is this the lowest possible amount?" Ms. Jordan asked, adding that there could be other experts "out there that may not cost us as much."
Mr. Renfrow assured the commission that the additional price of $22,543,550 was competitive. But, he said, if the county sought new bids, the price would be higher and the delay in hiring a new contractor could get in the way of the port dredging as well.
"I am very confident on that price," Mr. Renfrow said.
"Basically, I am trusting you and your team," Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz told Mr. Renfrow.
"You're working with a time bomb right now," Mr. Diaz said. "Tourism is our thing and it would affect the areas we don't want to affect."
Commissioner Sally Heyman agreed, saying the county could not afford "a massive sewage spill. The devastation to our tourist trade… we could not recover from. First and foremost is health and safety."
Ms. Jordan told the mayor that commissioners need a comprehensive report on the sewage system "that cites exactly what is going on… so we can cure our system. I don't want it sanitized."
Mayor Gimenez told commissioners that he put Mr. Renfrow and his staff "through the wringer" on the need for the emergency work, which will replace the existing pipe and bury it deeper. "They had to show me," he said.
"You didn't want to tap into the existing structure that was going to fail," the mayor said. "I hope it's not going to rupture anytime soon."
"I sat on that side," the mayor said about his previous role as commissioner. "This is the solution… We need to do it now. Unfortunately, it's going to cost more."
The commission voted 9-2 to extend the contract. Chairman Joe Martinez and Esteban Bovo Jr. voted no. Bruno Barreiro and Xavier Suarez weren't in the commission chambers during the vote.
Besides the increased contract cost to Ric-Man Construction, the commission approved additional compensation to engineering firm of Earth Tech Consulting Inc. by $1.1 million for the new sewer pipe. The firm's initial contract for the original projects was $7.15 million.
Ric-Man was one of five firms that bid on the original projects and came in with the lowest bid of $56,690,421. The firm, which has been doing business in Florida for at least nine years, later lowered the price to $54,892,728.
Ric-Man was found by Richard Mancini in Michigan in 1965 and was previously awarded a $3 million county contract, receiving a satisfactory performance evaluation.
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