Lawsuit on sewage is payback for criticizing DeSantis, Democratic mayor says

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who has written several letters to DeSantis requesting a statewide mask mandate, said Monday that a lawsuit over the city’s sewage spills caught him by surprise.
City of Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber speaks during a roundtable discussion at Stephen P. Clark Government Center in July 2020.
City of Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber speaks during a roundtable discussion at Stephen P. Clark Government Center in July 2020. [ JOSÉ A. IGLESIAS | Miami Herald ]
Published Nov. 10, 2020|Updated Nov. 10, 2020

The Democratic mayor of Miami Beach, Dan Gelber, said a state lawsuit filed against the city for a series of sewer breaks is “obviously politically motivated” because he has openly criticized Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit, filed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, accuses the city of breaking state law in connection with the accidental rupturing of three sewer lines between July 2019 and last March that dumped about 1.7 million gallons of wastewater into Biscayne Bay.

Two of the breaks occurred when contracted workers mistakenly punctured pipes. The third, on March 5, was indirectly caused by contractor error after the city diverted pressure from one of the ruptured pipes to another one, overwhelming the system.

Gelber, who has written several letters to DeSantis requesting a statewide mask mandate to control COVID-19 and accusing him of pursuing a herd-immunity strategy, said Monday that the lawsuit caught him by surprise.

“It is obviously politically motivated,” he said. “He’s obviously not happy with us — with me.”

Fred Piccolo, the governor’s communications director, said Tuesday that DeSantis is “on a mission to protect Florida’s environment.”

“Whether he likes it or not, Mayor Gelber has to recognize that under Governor DeSantis, the days of polluting without consequence are over,” Piccolo said.

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 2 in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, requests that Miami Beach pay $750,000 in penalties and develop a “comprehensive emergency contingency plan to respond to future unpermitted discharges.” The state lists contractors A.C. Schultes and Calea as defendants in the case. Blogger Susan Askew first reported the lawsuit.

Gelber questioned why the state filed a lawsuit against the city when it never sued Fort Lauderdale, which leaked 232 million gallons of sewage from its failing pipes over a three-month period earlier this year. The state did fine the city $2.1 million for the spills.

“He didn’t sue Fort Lauderdale when they actually had the problem,” Gelber said. “We literally had a contractor sever our lines accidentally.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection said they could not answer questions Monday about how often the agency sues municipalities for sewer spills because enforcement statistics were not readily accessible.

“Under the leadership of Governor DeSantis, Florida has taken a bold step to address wastewater spills and enforce the state’s environmental laws,” the spokesperson said. “The Florida Department of Environmental Protection takes all wastewater discharges very seriously and violators will be held accountable. This complaint contains specific measures aimed at preventing future discharges which will better protect Biscayne Bay and nearby communities.”

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In June, DeSantis approved a House bill that increases sewage-overflow fines and other environmental fees.

Miami Beach Public Works Director Roy Coley, who oversees the city’s wastewater system, said the city was “disappointed” by the lawsuit.

“The (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) lawsuit against the city of Miami Beach is based on sewer spills caused by private contractors who damaged city infrastructure. The city had to devote significant resources to respond to those spills, and has made significant investments in upgrading its sewer infrastructure,” Coley wrote in a statement. “We are disappointed that the (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) has decided to file a lawsuit against the city instead of helping to solve the problem.”

State wants Miami Beach to 'offset’ sewage spills

The first break, on July 31, 2019, occurred as Calea workers were drilling at Fifth Street and Michigan Avenue and resulted in the leakage of 390,000 gallons of sewage into the bay. According to the lawsuit, the city “failed to adequately mark the location of the force main,” which workers inadvertently punctured. The city, which did not respond to calls from the contractor, did not arrive at the scene until the following day, the lawsuit states.

The second break, on March 2, involved the drilling of a well at 1665 Michigan Ave. by workers with a subcontractor to A.C. Shultes, according to the lawsuit. Workers struck a force main and pumped 713,000 gallons of wastewater into the bay.

The force-main rupture caused two more breaks, on March 5, which led to another 593,000 gallons of wastewater in the bay. Over an 18-day period following the break, more than 20.5 million gallons of wastewater were contained on site, pumped into a truck and returned into the system, the city said.

The lawsuit, which calls for both contractors to be fined as well, also mentions a smaller discharge of 3,800 gallons of wastewater from the city’s sewer system that took place in December 2019.

In its legal complaint, the agency requests that the city “offset the nutrient load” the sewage spills dumped into the bay through environmental projects. Additionally, the state asks that the city develop a map of its sewage system, assess the condition of its components and create a plan to prevent and respond to spills caused by third-party contractors.

“The point I would like to emphasize is that thanks to Governor DeSantis' leadership, we have a strong regulatory structure focused on enforcement that allows the department to take the necessary steps to effectively address issues like this and protect Florida’s environment,” the Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson said.

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