After years of deadly algal blooms around South Florida and fish kills in Biscayne Bay, Miami-Dade lawmakers are considering a long-overdue hike to the county’s local water pollution fines — in some cases raising penalties more than tenfold.
Commissioners Thursday gave preliminary approval to a new ordinance by Rebeca Sosa that would provide across-the-board increases to the county’s civil penalties for violations that affect water quality. It would also add escalating fines for repeat offenses, a first in the county for water pollution offenses.
The County Commission will host a public hearing on the item July 19 before holding a second and final vote.
Miami-Dade is counting on the raised fines to improve local efforts to discourage bad actors. At their current rate, violators view the fines merely as “the cost of doing business,” a memo from Miami-Dade Chief Operating Officer Jimmy Morales said.
That assessment tracks with a review by staff from the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management, which found that, for the most part, the county’s monetary fines for water pollution had “not been revised or updated in decades and have not kept pace with current dollar values.”
“As such, the issuance of (fines) to address violations … has, to some extent, lost its effectiveness as a deterrent to those that may violate the county’s environmental regulations, including repeating the same offense,” Morales’ memo said.
Sosa’s ordinance follows a string of disturbing events in and around Biscayne Bay, including a pair of mass marine life die-offs in 2020 and 2021 that killed tens of thousands of fish. The bay has also been subject to regular sewage spills that exacerbated its already tenuous condition.
In many cases, the spills came as a result of Miami-Dade’s crumbling wastewater infrastructure. The county is currently under a federally mandated consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requiring $1.6 billion worth of improvements through 2028. That agreement does not include the roughly $3 billion cost of converting 120,000 potentially leaky septic tanks throughout the county to the sewer system.
Local and state officials have long been aware of worsening conditions in the bay that from 2013 to 2017 led to a roughly 75% drop in the volume of manatee grass, which uniquely can thrive in water filled with nutrients while anchoring the seabed and providing oxygen necessary for aquafauna to thrive.
A Miami-Dade grand jury concluded in August 2019 that the body of water was in a “precarious balance” due to three key contributors: sewage contamination, excess nutrients, and pollution and littering, including marine debris, plastics and sediment flowing from canals into the bay.
That same year, the Miami-Dade Commission created the Biscayne Bay Task Force to brainstorm solutions. The group produced a report with more than 60 policy recommendations to improve the bay’s health, including setting new pollution limits, a climate change assessment and establishing a countywide fertilizer ordinance.
The city of Miami passed a fertilizer ordinance in April 2020. The county followed suit with a ban on the use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers during the summer rainy season from May 15 to Oct. 31.
The Task Force report also called for the county to “review, utilize and strengthen enforcement” of its environmental and endangered land ordinances. That step is now before the County Commission.
As the ordinance is now written, existing penalties will increase as follows:
— Failure to properly obtain a required operating permit: $500, up from $200.
— Open burning: $750, up from $250.
— Failure by a property owner or lessee to properly secure a permit for specified types of work: $1,000, up from $100.
— Unlawful circumventing of code requirement: $1,000, up from $200.
— Noncompliance with provisions regulating sanitary sewer collection and transmission: $1,000, up from $250.
— Violating litter laws other than those decreed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection: $1,000, up from $250.
— Causing a nuisance or sanitary nuisance: $1,000, up from $500.
— Maintaining a sanitary nuisance at a single-family residential property: $1,000, up from $500.
— Prohibited floating structures or non-water-dependent fixed structures: $1,500, up from $200.
— Noncompliance with provisions regulating wastewater disposal and treatment methods other than sanitary sewers: $1,500, up from $200.
— Failure by a contractor to properly secure a permit for specified types of work: $2,000, up from $500.
— Discharging prohibited waste or substances into a sewer: between $1,500 and $2,500 based on sewer type with multiple violations resulting in stacked fines, up from $300.
— Breach of effluent standards by new sewage treatment plants and industrial waste treatment facilities: $2,500, up from $100.
— Bypassing a waste treatment facility: $2,500, up from $200.
— Noncompliance with liquid waste transport regulations: $2,500, up from $250.
— Failure to have plans approved: $2,500, up from $200.
— Discharge of prohibited substances into county waters: $2,500, up from $200.
— Exceeding effluent standards for discharges: $2,500, up from $200.
— Unlawful discharge affecting water quality: $2,500, up from $200.
New penalties added under the ordinance include:
— Failure to comply with the conditions of an operating permit: $250.
— Violating Florida litter laws with up to 15 pounds in weight or 27 cubic feet in volume: $250.
— Violating Florida litter laws with more than 156 pounds but less than 500 pounds in weight or more than 27 cubic feet but less than 100 cubic feet in volume: $1,000.
— Violating Florida litter laws with 500 pounds or more in weight, 100 cubic feet or more in volume, litter dumped from a commercial vehicle or for commercial purposes: $2,500.
— Maintaining a sanitary nuisance at a property other than a single-family residence: $2,500.
— Failure to obtain written approval prior to constructing, utilizing, operating or allowing the operation of a wastewater collection and transmission system: $2,500.
Miami-Dade today levies an additional $100 fine on violations of its environmental and endangered land ordinances. The new item would increase that fine to $500 for first offenses, $1,000 for second offenses and $2,500 for all additional offenses within five years of the last offense.