ISLAMORADA -- Failing vacuum pits on Plantation Key are expected to increase the cost of Islamorada's sewer project between $400,000 and $600,000, according to officials.
When the pits fail, they send sewage with higher levels of salinity than allowed to the Key Largo wastewater treatment plant at mile marker 100.5, oceanside.
Because of the recent developments, the village has replaced 10 vacuum pits at a cost of $100,000. However, a recent inspection of 400 pits revealed at least 40 need to be replaced, if not more. Given the potential costs, the village last week decided to draft a change order to allow Layne, known locally as Reynolds Water Islamorada, to replace up to 60 pits if needed.
At last Thursday's council meeting, village wastewater engineering consultant Tom Brzezinski said pits are being ranked on a 1-to-4 scale, with 1 being fair condition and 4 requiring immediate replacement. He estimated that 30 to 40 have been ranked a 4, while 25 to 30 have received a 3.
The inspection report, he said, was incomplete and he hadn't yet reviewed a draft. He estimated the cost to replace a pit at between $10,000 and $12,000. In the last 12 months, 25 failing pits have been replaced at a cost of $258,000.
Mayor Ted Blackburn said he was worried Brzezinski was underestimating the number of pits needing replacement, which the mayor said could be as many as 85.
The total number will be clearer when the final report is released, Brzezinski said.
In response to a resident's frustration with the replacement, Blackburn said, "We have been as proactive as we possibly can."
"What do you want us to do?" Councilman Mike Forster asked.
Key Largo Wastewater Board member Robby Majeska, who attended the village meeting, told the board it needed to act quickly to prevent his district from being saddled with unforeseen costs.
To date, though, Majeska said the district has not faced any additional costs in dealing with the higher salinity levels in village sewage. But he fears that as more village residents begin connecting to the system, the district may have a problem. So far, only part of Plantation Key is sending sewage north.
Paul Christian, the wastewater district's interim general manager, praised the council's efforts in addressing the problem. Replacing the pits, he explained, will have a positive impact on the Key Largo plant.
"High salinity levels are usually caused by ground water infiltrating into the vacuum system," Christian said. "If the vacuum pits are faulty, leaking or improperly connected, it could inadvertently allow ground water seepage, especially at higher tides."