Real Poop Reads the Papers – Cudjoe Regional

I’ve been out running around, having fun the past week or so.  I haven’t been paying much attention to newspapers.  I’m back today, catching up.

The first one is a letter about the sad, pitiful state of the Cudjoe Regional wastewater project – $190 million worth of drama.  The letter was written by John Prosser.  A quick Google search indicates that there is (or was) a John Prosser that works (worked) for the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA).  His letter, Let the Cudjoe Project Sink, is intriguing.

In March 2008, over seven years ago, FKAA received a report from consulting engineers CH2M Hill evaluating the feasibility of abandoning the 2000 Monroe County Wastewater Master Plan and just building one treatment plant in Cudjoe, with water channel crossings, instead of building two or three smaller, scattered plants. CH2M Hill told FKAA they would need two deep injection wells for effluent from a single plant at Cudjoe. The report was sent to the county engineer with a cover letter from FKAA’s Tom Walker recommending one plant, so the county engineer also knew deep wells were required.

When it comes to wastewater treatment, bigger is typically better.  Flows from a larger service area smooth out peaks and buffer upsets.  You get better, more effective treatment at a lower per unit cost.  I believe the 2000 master plan called for 13 wastewater treatment plants for the Key Largo area.  After building the first pilot plant, the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District (District), quickly abandoned the idea of building multiple plants.  The Village of Islamorada after initially embracing the idea of multiple plants soon realized that siting would be extremely challenging, and chose to send their wastewater to the Key Largo plant for treatment.  This part of the letter certainly rings true.

On July 7, 2008 – seven years ago — the state Department of Environmental Protection told FKAA and county engineers in a meeting that shallow wells often do not work in the Keys, and when they do, it is often just on outgoing tides. DEP warned that there would be a danger of migrating leachate from the abandoned landfill. DEP told them that they would need at least one deep well for effluent disposal.

It’s long been known that shallow wells operate very similarly to ocean outfalls in the Florida Keys.  Reuse is the most environmentally friendly disposal option for treated effluent.  Deep wells are the next best and the most practical for the Keys.  As I’ve said before, I support the deep well option for Cudjoe Regional even though it adds to the already exorbitant cost of the project.

The minutes of that meeting were submitted by FKAA/DEP in court evidence at the Dump the Pumps challenge to collection system permits, because they include that DEP told FKAA to use no other alternative to conventional gravity except E-One brand grinder pumps. Considering that DEP could not identify a single successful Florida collection system to the court that is based on numerous E-One grinder pumps, one wonders why the strong “recommendation.”

It is fascinating to me that DEP would support E-One grinder pumps as the only alternative to a gravity system.  That is definitely not in keeping with the DEP I know.  Key Largo, Marathon and now Islamorada have all successfully permitted vacuum systems through DEP.  So have numerous other wastewater utilities.  Based on my own experience, I find it odd that DEP would specifically demand E-One grinder pumps.  I’ve just never seen or heard of them doing anything like that.  If true, this is extremely unusual.  I will have to get my hands on these documents.

I will say that E-One was extremely aggressive when the District was bidding its grinder pump project.  The manufacturer’s representative relentlessly lobbied the wastewater commissioners in an attempt to undermine staff’s efforts to put together a fair, competitive bid.  E-One seemed very determined to bypass the competitive bidding process.  In the end, the grinder pump purchase was competitively bid and E-One was the pump chosen, mostly due to its much lower cost.  Based on that experience, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear that FKAA staff was under similar pressure to sole-source E-One grinder pumps.

The entire Cudjoe project is a design disaster. FKAA and county officials were alerted, but ignored the torpedo warnings. Let it sink and get better captains on a boat that floats.

I certainly wonder about the future of the Cudjoe project.  I think the FKAA is going to have its hands full operating a collection system with 1,800 grinder pumps.  That is going to be a challenge in and of itself.  The lack of confidence from the public just increases the level of difficulty.

Way back in the beginning of the Key Largo project, the District decided that a vacuum system was the way to go.  At the time, the problems with Islamorada’s vacuum system in Plantation Key Colony were well-publicized.  The Key Largo public thought we were idiots.  In fairness, what else were they supposed to think?  All they knew about vacuum systems were the problems they were causing in Islamorada.  It was the District’s responsibility to educate the public.  So we held town hall meetings to explain our decision.  It wasn’t easy but it turned out to be very worthwhile.  The effort that we put into laying out the facts and figures made a world of difference.  Not everyone was completely convinced but at least they were more comfortable.  They knew their questions and concerns would be addressed in a straightforward manner.  We managed to establish a certain level of trust with our customers.  That is what’s missing from the Cudjoe project.  The FKAA will be fighting its own customers long after the law suits are resolved.

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