Group appeals grinder pump permitting for sewer system

By Steve Estes

The local grassroots group that has dubbed itself Dump the Pumps, with a mission to attempt to eradicate low-pressure grinder pumps from as much of the under-construction Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System as possible has filed an administrative appeal with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In that appeal,the group alleges that the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority has ignored state regulations in its development of the regional wastewater collection system and asks the DEP to reign in the system.

In the complaint, the group says it is trying to force DEP to enforce the rules, regulations and laws for protection of the waters surrounding the Lower Florida Keys, as well as other natural resources in the service area.

That service area covers from Lower Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine Key and when completed is slated to serve about 8,800 equivalent dwelling units and treat up to one million gallons per day.

The group must first file an administrative appeal of the permits issued by DEP to the Aqueduct for construction of the collection system, said Banks Prevatt, lead organizer for the group. And if they are unsuccessful, “the issue may still have to go to court.”

The complaint alleges that FKAA is not in compliance with the permits thus far issued by DEP in several areas.

The group argues that the E-One grinder pump, the low-pressure pump chosen for installation on about 1,700 remaining properties in the Cudjoe Regional, does not meet the minimum flow velocity set out by DEP rules.

According to manufacturers documents submitted by the group,the pump nominally operates at 2.8 feet per minute in a 1.25 inch pipe, but when the effluent enters the larger diameter pipe of two inches at the street, the flow rate falls to 1.2 feet per second. The rules, claim the group, call for a minimum flow rate of two feet per second for all collection systems, but 2.5 feet per second for low-pressure systems.

The complaint alleges that the emergency response plan by FKAA for power outages is not sufficient to meet the DEP guidelines.

FKAA has included plans to deploy two pump trucks with portable generators should a storm knock out electrical power which the pumps need to operate. FKAA officials said they believe the two crews can get to 100 properties per day each, or an eight-day cycle. Part of the plan, however, is contingent on the fact that about 40 percent or more of the affected homes won’t be occupied during normal hurricane season and won’t require a response.

Dump the Pumps leaders claim that even with the lower unity numbers, two trucks and crews won’t be able to reach all the affected units in time to avoid raw sewage back ups into either the affected homes or the Keys’ fragile ecosystem.

FKAA engineers say that the pump pits have about a two-day storage capacity for minimal water usage before the pit is in danger of being overflowed. Engineers also say that major water centers such as washers and dishwashers won’t operate without power, enhancing the pit’s storage capabilities.

The group also claims that the E-One pump isn’t explosion proof as required by DEP rules.

“The National Electric Code requires certain safety precautions for operating non-explosion proof electrical pumps such as grinder pumps where explosive gases accumulate,” the complaint states.

The group says that the Cudjoe Regional area has a high percentage of seasonal homes that will not be occupied during extended periods before or after hurricane damage and that the raw sewage that will remain in the pump pit from the last use can generate methane gasses. Methane is considered highly explosive and property owners are concerned that pumps might explode when power is applied after both storm shut downs and seasonal vacancies.

The appeal states that the grinder pump stations lack mechanical ventilation to allow gasses to escape, potentially triggering explosions upon restart that could cause property damage and spills of raw sewage into the environment.

The residents also suggest that the pumps will face a higher rate of failure at those homes that are only seasonally occupied as the pump is designed to operate on a daily basis for optimal performance.

The group says that the mandatory 10-foot separation between sewer lines and water lines in the street hasn’t been met by FKAA’s current design in many areas.

The complaint also alleges that the original design of the system didn’t call for individual quick connections for portable generators in the case of an extended outage. The Monroe Board of County Commissioners authorized additional monies last year to install individual generator connections on each pump to allow either FKAA crews or the homeowners to power the pump for limited times and cycle the effluent to the pipes in the streets.

The BOCC also approved additional money to install telemetry systems on each pump that will signal overseers when a pump malfunctions.

Officials at DEP acknowledged Wednesday that they had received the appeal from Dump the Pumps and would begin reviewing the claims. There was no mention of a specific time frame for that review.

According to Summerland Key Attorney Lee Rohe, who drafted the appeal and the possible follow-on legal action, the group seeks an injunction to cease further work on the low-pressure portion of the Cudjoe Regional until the questions they bring forward have been addressed either by DEP or the courts.

They also claim that the grinder pump system will not work properly under adverse conditions and will negatively impact the properties using the pumps.

“Harm to human health and the environment will be irreparable upon the spillage of raw sewage,” the complaint alleges and asks that DEP stop the process until all conditions of the permits are met by FKAA and its contractors.

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