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Residents of The Shores worry about safety of reuse water pipeline

Photo: Pipeline is set to run along Old Winter Beach Road.

Residents of The Shores showed up at the July 10 County Commission meeting to ask commissioners for help in delaying construction of the $6 million, five-mile-long reuse water pipeline that is slated to run along the edge of their community.

They said installation of the 16-inch diameter pipe, which is intended to carry a million gallons a day of county reuse water to John’s Island to irrigate golf courses and lawns, will endanger the Indian River Lagoon and their homes, and that the planning process for the project has been faulty.

Commissioners admitted they had not been aware of cautionary information presented by residents but voted unanimously to move the project forward anyway, granting John’s Island Water Management District a construction easement it needed to proceed with the pipeline.

The proposed pipe starts at the county’s reuse water tank at 77th Street and Old Dixie Highway, goes south along Dixie Highway and U.S. 1, and then east to the lagoon. It continues for another mile 80 feet below the lagoon and then runs along Old Winter Beach Road before bending south along A1A to reach John’s Island.

Tom Ether, a resident of The Shores, gave a presentation to the commission that included illustrations showing that the path of the proposed pipeline crosses a fault line that runs under the lagoon near the subdivision.

He said directional drilling needed to extend the pipeline deep under the lagoon could destabilize the unconsolidated soils and cause the pipe to break and leak, which would violate St. Johns River Water Management District’s rules prohibiting the flow of reuse water into the lagoon and possibly damage homes in The Shores and the adjacent River Club community.

Ether pointed out that the county already has a pipeline carrying reuse water to the island, which doesn’t go under the lagoon or in front of houses. It is attached to the Wabasso Bridge along County Road 510 and goes underground along State Road A1A.

He said no one has explained why this safer, existing pipeline could not be extended five miles south to John’s Island.

Ether claimed his group has been asking John’s Island Water Management to share an engineering study done by Knight, McGuire & Associates to show why this existing route was rejected, and asked if the county had examined the study to determine if the “more dangerous and probably more expensive” new pipeline is necessary.

County Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan and County Administrator Jason Brown both said the county had not received or looked at the study.

Commissioner Bob Solari said other governmental agencies overseeing permitting for the pipeline were responsible for studying the issues, and said they should be held accountable – not the county.

After the meeting, Ether said his group is, in fact, trying to hold the Florida Department of Environmental Protection accountable, but that county commissioners will also be held “politically responsible, as our elected representatives” for endangering the lagoon and their homes.

Regarding FDEP failures, Ether said affected property owners – those within 500 feet of the route – weren’t properly notified by FDEP about the pipeline permitting process. Notices sent in April gave residents until this past January to protest the permit, which would have required them to do some “time traveling” in order to effectively respond. 

The Shores group enlisted the aid of Sen. Debbie Mayfield, who facilitated a meeting among 60 participants and the FDEP in April. The group asked the agency to make public its reasoning and evidence for rejecting the existing route and choosing the ecologically dicey route under the lagoon.

“We know John’s Island needs to irrigate and the county needs to dispose of its wastewater, preserving the Floridan aquifer for drinking water,” Ether said.

“We’re in favor of that. But we need to see and agree on facts and solutions. Why this tortuous route that leaves a pipe in shifting sands that could break and pollute the lagoon?

“Why choose a route that has to go 80 feet down to avoid the FPL pipe already there? Why drill in front of our houses and not on John’s Island property, making us, not them, vulnerable to cracks?  The reasons should be made public.”

The homeowners also asked the FDEP to supply missing documents in the environmental impact assessment, which failed to detect endangered indigo snakes or gopher tortoises along the route. Photos verifying their existence, taken by Pelican Island Audubon Society President Richard Baker, did not sway the FDEP’s decision.

Geologist Gail Evanguelidi, who lives in The Shores, said she informed three FDEP geologists of the fault line, which was detected and mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2001, and that none of them was aware of its existence.

“The fault line connects the Floridan’s saline and fresh water layers,” she said, “[and] it has fissures in it; the directional bore vibrations could commingle the layers. The FDEP geologist said, ‘No problem,’ but they haven’t done the calculations or research to make that assertion.”

Evanguelidi said that when she submitted the permits and soil sample tests to petroleum and structural engineer Asad Hayatdavoudi, who has experience with directional drilling projects, he told her, “You cannot do this.”

“He gave four reasons,” Evanguelidi said. “First, he said the sands, gravels, silts – the unconsolidated soils – could collapse. Second, the soils or muck from the boring will be placed on the land and it’s full of bacteria, which will sink into the land and seep back into the lagoon, polluting it. Third, the vibrations from directional boring could cause structural damage to nearby buildings. Fourth, directional boring is very hard to control, and along the drill path the soils go from sand to silt to gravel, which may cause additional destabilization.”

About 10 homes in The Shores are at risk, Evanguelidi said, “but there are three houses in the River Club, the development across the street, which are the most vulnerable. I don’t think they know what’s going on. They [John’s Island] are not putting down bonds for people’s homes.”

Jim Moller, president of the John’s Island Property Owners Association, which oversees John’s Island Water Management, defended the pipeline route and permitting process.

He said the study related to the permitting process started three years ago and that the existing pipeline path was rejected two years ago, in part because of doubts about its long-term viability.

“We have a pipe going over the 510 causeway that the . . . [Florida Department of Transportation] wants to get rid of,” Moller said. “That’s our concern; the DOT will take the existing bridge out and put in four lanes and the pipes won’t be allowed.”

In addition, Moller said the numerous driveways along the five-mile stretch of A1A between the terminus of the existing line and the lake in John’s island that has been designated as a reservoir for additional reuse water would require directional boring to avoid tearing up the driveways, making it an expensive option.

Extending the existing route would also put John’s Island last in line for county reuse water, with Orchid Island, Windsor and Disney properties getting it first. “There may not be a million gallons a day left by the time it gets to us,” Moller said. “This is a more direct route and we have a 25-year contract guaranteeing it.”

Moller said the fault line Ether highlighted is in a rock layer below the unstable sand layer the directional bore will cross, and so poses no danger.

Other issues the residents have raised will be addressed, Moller said. Noise will be at a minimum, trucks and drilling equipment “shielded,” and seismographs placed to monitor any geological side effects created by the drilling.

Under the current plan, which was approved by the Town of Indian River Shores in February, John’s Island is getting the permits and building the pipeline, which will be deeded to the county when it is complete. 

In exchange, the county will sell John’s Island 1 million gallons a day of reuse water at half the going rate for 25 years, allowing the agency to recoup project costs. John’s Island will also receive a 20 percent royalty for reuse water sold to other communities within Indian River Shores.