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200,000 gallons of sewage quietly leaked in the Florida Keys — some during a hurricane

Jan 09, 2024

In late September, as Hurricane Ian brushed the Florida Keys on its way to hitting the state's southwestern Gulf coast, nearly 200,000 gallons of raw sewage from the island chain's billion-dollar wastewater treatment system — not even 10 years old — leaked into the porous ground and nearshore waters.

The "unauthorized discharges" weren't disclosed to the public or the five-member board that oversees the wastewater utility. The leaks were revealed in two February "warning letters" issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The letters to the utility — the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority — were obtained by the Miami Herald/ this week. A month ago, the Herald obtained documents revealing that the state environmental agency flagged the Keys utility in January 2022 because the Lower Keys portion of the centralized wastewater treatment system leaked more than 90,000 gallons of sewage between June 2020 and February 2021.

The Miami Herald also obtained a memo from April 2023 written by the utility's engineering chief revealing that repairs to parts of the system on Cudjoe, Ramrod, Sugarloaf and Big Coppitt Keys are estimated to cost consumers more than $16 million.

Greg Veliz, executive director of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, said the problems with the Lower Keys portion of the system pre-date his tenure leading the utility, which began about two years ago. The issues, he said, are due to flaws in the way the system was constructed in 2017.

"Some of the stuff didn't get done right, and we’re correcting that," Veliz told the Miami Herald/ this week.

Veliz added that the Keys utility found and reported the leaks to the state.

"For the record, all of these issues were self-reported and we are in constant contact with [Florida Department of Environmental Protection] to ensure that we are moving toward eventual compliance," he said. "We are currently on schedule for all remediation tasks set in our consent orders."

Cara Higgins, the only one of the five Aqueduct Authority board members to respond to repeated requests for comment on the issues with the system, said she and her colleagues were "not made aware of the specifics of the spill."

However, she said repairs and improvements to the system are an ongoing process.

"We have been told by staff that, along with occasional mechanical issues, our climate, heavy rainfall and king tides are to blame for a majority of the problems," Higgins said in an email.

Sewage in the Keys is transported via a series of pipes and pump stations to centralized locations on Cudjoe and Big Coppitt. Once there, it is treated to remove harmful pathogens and other waste, and the remaining water is injected into a deep well.

Veliz, the utility's executive director, said that the system in Cudjoe Key, the portion responsible for the majority of the leaks, was designed to handle 500,000 gallons of water a day. During heavy storms, however, a deluge of rain can force up to three million gallons of water into the system.

"We’re not prepared to hold that," he said. He added that most of the water that overflows from the system is rain, not pure sewage.

"It's not toilet-to-street," Veliz said. "Two-thirds of that is rainwater."

The majority of the leaks included in the state's Feb. 7, 2023, warning letter occurred at the Cudjoe Key Wastewater Treatment Plant, about 23 miles northeast of Key West. There were five "unauthorized discharges or unpermitted sanitary sewage overflows," according to the letter:

▪ The largest was 126,000 gallons that leaked on Sept. 29.

▪ The second-largest leak during that window of time from the Cudjoe plant was 24,600 gallons on Sept. 27, wrote Jason Andreotta, director of FDEP's southeast district.

▪ There were also six "unauthorized discharges" from the system that were not related to Hurricane Ian between October and January, including a large leak of 63,604 gallons on Oct. 7, Andreotta said.

It was not immediately clear where the sewage water ended up. Jon Moore, spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said Wednesday that he was working to gather that information.

The FDEP also sent a warning letter to Keys utility on Feb. 7 about more than 33,000 gallons that discharged in a total of three leaks during Hurricane Ian, as well as more than 1,850 gallons from two leaks not related to the hurricane in October and January.

Veliz said the immediate fixes the utility is working on includes replacing manhole covers and sealing rings and exporting capacity from the Big Coppitt plant, most of which he said comes from the Navy base, to the city of Key West.

Much of that work has been done, Veliz said, but it's not immediately clear how effective it's been.

"Unfortunately, it's going to take another heavy rain to see it if's working," Veliz said.

The Aqueduct Authority's sewer woes are compounded by the revelation earlier this year that the 40-plus-year-old freshwater underground pipe system is in disrepair and in need of replacing.

That problem became evident in March when three water pipe breaks in a week threatened to cut off the fresh water supply the island chain receives from Florida City on the mainland.

The cost to completely replace all the pipes exceeds $1 billion, and Veliz said the utility doesn't have that money on hand.

For now, the utility is in the process of a $42 million project in the Upper Keys Village of Islamorada to replace five miles of pipe. The project began in April and is expected to be completed in early 2025, according to the Aqueduct Authority. It's being funded with with $35 million in grants and $7 million in low-interest loans, the utility said in a statement.

The Florida environment department informed the Keys authority in May that it was investigating the utility for not keeping up with the aging freshwater infrastructure. In a May 5 letter, Andreotta, the same state official who wrote the warning letters over the sewer leaks, said the Keys utility "failed to maintain its system in good operating condition so as to function as intended, and that the piping infrastructure is "a very deteriorating water system that has not undergone assessment until recent years."

Andreotta added a reverse osmosis desalinization plant on Stock Island in the Lower Keys, which augments the fresh water supply that comes from the mainland in Florida City, is also deteriorating.

Veliz said that he and other utility officials are negotiating with the state to resolve all of the issues. He said part of coming into compliance includes the construction of another reverse osmosis plant, which he said is 80% complete. He said the utility has about $115 million of projects underway.

"No one can say that right now," Veliz said. "To say we’re not looking to improve our infrastructure is not exactly true."