Big Coppitt – What’s Really Going On?

I submitted a public records to the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA).  Last Thursday I asked for the Discharge Monitoring Reports (DMR’s) for July, September and August for the Big Coppitt Wastewater Treatment Facility.  I was astounded to see them in my inbox this morning.  The FKAA is non-responsive more often than not.  I’ll go on record as saying I’m very pleased.  Hopefully, their performance will be just as good going forward.

Anyhow, it looks like the Big Coppitt plant is still struggling.  In fact, a note on the September DMR talks about high salinity from the collection system.  As you may recall, Big Coppitt is served by a gravity system – known by some in the Keys as the “Cadillac” or the “gold standard” of sewer systems.  If you read enough on this blog you know that technology choice isn’t about that.  It’s about using the right tool for the right job.  Quality enters the picture after you’ve chosen the right tool and you’re looking for the best product or manufacturer.

If vacuum sewer is the right tool then you want to choose the best and/or most appropriate vacuum sewer equipment.  If gravity is the right tool, then you want to choose the best and/or most appropriate pumps for the lift stations.  If low pressure is the right tool, then you want to choose the best and/or most appropriate grinder pumps.  Gravity is not the “best” system.  Vacuum is not the “best” system.  Low pressure is not the “best” system.  One will fit a given application better than the others.  Get the picture?

Anyhow folks in Cudjoe Regional pushed and pushed for gravity because they were told it is the “gold standard”.  Their gravity wishes were granted at zero additional expense to them but at huge expense to taxpayers county-wide.  But is gravity the right tool for the job?

Well, from looking at what’s happening in Big Coppitt I’d have to say the answer is “no”.  The Keys have a very high water table.  Compounding that, there are higher-than-normal tides at certain times of the year.  Gravity is typically not the best choice under those conditions.  Vacuum sewer or low pressure are typically more resistant to infiltration.

The DMR’s and other documents available on FDEP’s Oculus database indicate that Big Coppitt has been experiencing issues for quite a while.  Rather than being up front and honest about that, the FKAA claimed that they were obligated to go with low pressure because it was “cheaper” – the implication being that they would build a “superior” gravity system if the county provided the cash.

At the October 2013 Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting, Tom Walker said that the FKAA would have provided a gravity system if money were not an issue.  At the January 2014 BOCC meeting, FKAA’s design engineer faced the impossible challenge of selling a low pressure system to a room full of angry residents who were led to believe that low pressure is an “inferior” system compared to gravity.  He probably knew all the while that there were problems in Big Coppitt’s gravity collection system but couldn’t say anything.  Poor guy.  Talk about awkward.

Needless to say Cudjoe Regional customers got much of the gravity they demanded – generously subsidized by their neighbors – many of whom pay more for their less costly systems.  Unfortunately, Cudjoe Regional citizens were acting on some bad information.  I don’t know how happy they’re going to be with the expensive gravity system they wanted so badly.  It’s likely that the Cudjoe Regional plant will face many of the same challenges as the Big Coppitt plant.

Here are links to those DMR’s:

Big Coppitt DMR 07-2015:  High CBOD result blamed on lab dilution error.

Big Coppitt DMR 08-2015:  Lab testing indicated a high NTU, which was not detected by in-house samples.  NTU or Nephelometric Turbidity Unit is a measure of turbidity.

Big Coppitt DMR 09-2015:  High Total Suspended Solids (TSS) and high salinity.  Problems in the collection system are noted as the suspected cause.

This, of course, only compounds the disaster that is the Cudjoe Regional project.  It’s pretty depressing.  Millions of tax dollars have potentially been wasted on something that probably won’t even work as well as the “cheaper” solution.  That’s the bad part.

Here’s the good part.  The voters of Monroe County have the opportunity to make some significant changes to the BOCC in the 2016 election.  Changes that are badly needed.  The two worst offenders when it comes to excessive spending on Cudjoe Regional and the failure to address the unfair wastewater funding disparity suffered by Key Largo are up for re-election.  Hopefully, they will be facing some capable, qualified, fair-minded challengers.  District 5 voters, in particular, need to remember that all BOCC candidates need votes from all over the Keys.

Here’s the rundown on the incumbents up for re-election.  None of them has filed yet.  Perhaps on some level they, too, realize it’s time for a change and have chosen not to run again.  But probably not.  It’s very early in the process.

District 3, Heather Carruthers – Huge supporter of uncontrolled spending on Cudjoe Regional.  Little to no vocal support of funding equity for Key Largo.  In my opinion, this makes her a very poor candidate for the BOCC.  The Keys need someone who is fair and knows how to spend smart.  Carruthers is not it.

District 1, Danny Kolhage – Huge supporter of uncontrolled spending on Cudjoe Regional.  Little to no vocal support of funding equity for Key Largo.  In fact, he attempted to postpone a vote on a housekeeping matter, which would have delayed the swap agreement.  Also extremely unsuitable for the BOCC.  Again a fair-minded candidate with financial sense is needed.  Kolhage is not it.

District 5, Sylvia Murphy – The loudest and sometimes only voice of reason when it came to curbing spending on Cudjoe Regional.  Unfortunately, Murphy threw her own constituents under the bus and failed to pursue funding equity for Key Largo.  Four years later, Key Largo taxpayers still haven’t seen a dime to correct the $26 million problem.  District 5 needs a strong advocate on the BOCC – someone who can balance District 5’s interests with the interests of citizens county-wide.  Murphy is not it.

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One Response to Big Coppitt – What’s Really Going On?

  1. Pingback: Emergency Services – Who, Where and How Much? | The Real Poop

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