Petitions don’t halt work on system

By Steve Estes

Officials with the grassroots organization Dump the Pumps, which is fighting against the installation of low-pressure grinder pumps in private yards as part of the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System, say they are absolutely astounded that their complaints against permits issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection for construction of that system have gone unheeded.

The group has filed a protest to five permits in the last three weeks, two on Big Pine Key, one for Little Palm Island, one for Upper Sugarloaf Key and the latest for the force main that runs between Big Pine Key and Ramrod Key.

According to state regulations, those protests should have stopped all work on the Cudjoe Regional covered by those permits.

But contractors for the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority continue to dig trenches and lay pipe in the north Big Pine region and Upper Sugarloaf.

And according to FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch, the contractors will continue to move forward on the Cudjoe Regional project until, or unless, DEP tells them to stop.

Under state regulations, says Summerland Key attorney Lee Rohe, one of the members of the Dump the Pumps legal team, once an interested party has filed a protest against the permits within the 14 days mandated by the regulation, DEP is supposed to void the permits.

The state agency is then supposed to forward the complaints to the Division of Administrative Hearings which will set hearings in a Keys’ location to listen to arguments about the validity of the permits.

How long that might take is completely up to DOAH, says Banks Prevatt, Little Torch resident and president of Dump the Pumps.

“But as we read the statute, once we protest the permits, they should be null and void and work should stop until the complaints are addressed by DOAH,” said Prevatt.

The work hasn’t stopped, and in fact, says Prevatt, the group has been unable to find where the complaints were forwarded to DOAH a all.

“The state is simply choosing to ignore us,” he said.

Rohe said he’s unaware of any scenario where a state agency can simply ignore it’s own regulations concerning permitting and the complaints should have gone to DOAH within 14 days of filing by Dump the Pumps.

“We think that is an absolute abuse of state power,” said Prevatt.

The group is concerned that the Cudjoe Regional, which has about 1,300 parcels to be hooked up to grinder pumps, will not function as advertised for a number of reasons.

The group claims that the pumps don’t meet the minimum flow rates outlined by state regulation, and also that the pumps are an explosion hazard when they’re left unattended for extended periods at homes where part time residents leave the Keys for months on end.

The group also claims that the emergency plan FKAA has endorsed will not be up to snuff. The pumps require power to run. When a storm takes out power, maybe for an extended period, local residents are concerned that effluent overflow will spill raw sewage onto the ecologically sensitive lands of the Lower Keys.

FKAA has said that it plans to run two or more trucks outfitted with emergency generators that can be plugged into the individual grinder pumps to pump out the well pits and maintain system integrity until power is restored.

Dump the Pumps claims that the plan falls far short of being adequate to address emergency needs.

“We don’t have any idea who at the state level is making decisions to ignore our appeals, but there are other avenues we can take to force the issue,” said Prevatt.

Members of the group have already contacted the state Inspector General’s Office to lodge a complaint against FKAA for allowing its contractors to continue working after the permits have been appealed. That office said that the issue is outside their jurisdiction because they have none over independent state agencies such as the FKAA. But Dump the Pumps was told that the Inspector General would forward the complaints to other IG offices that are directly involved in water quality and utility issues.

The group has also reached out to the US Fish and Wildlife Service which oversees much of the land on Big Pine and No Name Keys and is charged with protecting the many endangered species that call those islands home.

“Our concern is that during construction the contractors will be pumping thousands of gallons of fresh water out of the fresh water lens on Big Pine that endangered species rely on for water supply,” said Prevatt. “If that supply becomes compromised,what does that do to the future of the species?”

Even though DEP has yet to act in a manner Dump the Pumps officials feel is proper, Prevatt said the group “isn’t going away.”

“We have what we feel are valid complaints and we will find a way to h ave those complaints addressed,” he said.

The group has been meeting weekly to discuss strategy going forward.

“We are researching now what our next move can be if DEP doesn’t do what we feel they must do in response to our complaints,” said Prevatt.

The group is also researching what happens in the future should members decline to give FKAA easements to install grinder pumps on private property.

According to Monroe County legal staff, the mandate to upgrade wastewater treatment in the county is an individual one. The county has the authority to decide on the system and costs, but the responsibility to connect to the selected central collection system is the property owner’s.

Once the resident is issued a notice of availability for connection, they have 30 days to hook into the system. The county has already said that it won’t maintain 30 days as a hard and fast rule because there aren’t enough plumbers to make that many connections in that short a time frame.

But eventually, county officials expect everyone to run a lateral from the home to the pipe in the street and become part of the system. Those that choose not to can be hauled into the code enforcement system,with fines levied against the property and liens placed for long-term non-compliance.

“In many cases it won’t be a matter of choosing not to, but not being able to afford to pay for the laterals to hook in,” said Prevatt. “We feel as though the county should be looking at the affordability issue for our lower income residents and be finding a way for them to be able to comply without code liens and the possibility of losing their homes.”

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