Miami Herald Puts King Philip in His Place on Bay pollution
Miami Herald Executive Editor responds to Mayor Philip Levin’s letter of protest.
Watch the video below and then read the letter from Aminda Marques Gonzalez Miami Herald Executive Editor.
Aminda Marqués Gonzalez
Executive Editor and Vice President
May 31, 2016
City Attorney Raul J. Aguila
1700 Convention Center Drive
Miami Beach, Fl., 33139
Dear Mr. Aguila:
I received your May 25 letter on behalf of Miami Beach regarding the Miami Herald story on a study of pollutants flowing from the city’s new drainage system.
First, to be clear, there will be no retraction of the story. As you know, the Miami Herald published a letter to the editor from City Manager Jimmy Morales in regard to this story on May 18. Your request for a retraction fails to point to a single factual error in the May 16 article — and in fact your letter itself includes errors. For a city that rightly prides itself on a pioneering response to sea level rise — efforts that have received extensive coverage from the Miami Herald — the letter also displays a surprising lack of understanding of the basic science process and water quality issues.
First, the Herald story contains repeated explanations of the salient point of the study: This is not just a Miami Beach issue but one for all of Florida if current King Tide-like conditions increase in frequency as a result of sea rise. In the third paragraph, the story states runoff issues are not confined to Miami Beach, noting that “detecting human waste in urban floodwater is hardly unusual …” and later adds “the problem is not just for Miami Beach. Up and down the coast, as seas rise, more urban water is expected to be flushed into coastal waters, putting at risk one of the state’s biggest tourist draws.”
Second, the city’s letter correctly points out that fecal coliform can come from either animals or humans and correctly argues that genetic testing would need to be done to tell the difference. But it fails to note that the scientists did, in fact, do genetic testing to support the findings.
Third, the letter asks whether writer Jenny Staletovich knew Dr. Briceno tested only on a single day in 2014 and 2015 and took samples directly from the outfall pipe? Yes, the story states that clearly.
Your letter continues with an incorrect assertion that Briceno and his team did not test any other locations. As the story notes: “For now, tidal flushing has kept the dirty water from building up in the bay. Samples taken further from shore, the team found, were largely diluted, creating a kind of halo of pollution.”
“Tidal flushing every day actually cleans up the water,” Briceno said. “That helps a lot so we don’t have a major problem. But those waters that are flushed out go to the coral reefs.”
Fourth, the city’s own expert acknowledged she could not refute the findings and is quoted in the story raising the concerns enumerated in your letter about the study’s limitations. She also explains the steps the city is taking to address polluted runoff. Further, the story quotes Briceno praising Miami Beach as a leader on an issue all coastal cities face. “I recognize that they are doing a heck of a job compared to other cities, but we need to address this problem.”
Fifth, your letter confuses regulatory standards with basic research. The letter cites an NPDES permit and monthly county sampling as if they are the scientific gold standards of water quality management. They are not. They are simply legal constructs that allow industries, cities and other polluters to dispose of waste water and contaminants — typically at some monthly or annual mean level intended to balance economic costs against ecological ones. State water quality standards have been repeatedly challenged in court or questioned by scientists because the old adage that “dilution is the solution to pollution” has not always proven true. The city is surely aware, for instance, that the state of Florida has ordered the shutdown of ocean outfall sewage pipes because of mounting evidence of reef damage from long-term nutrient loading. The repeated dismissal of Briceno’s work as “foundation-less” shows misunderstanding of the research process. This is actually the definition of foundation work, the establishment of baseline information that can help scientists, regulators and civic and political leaders to understand what is coming out of the pipe before it is diluted. That is a fundamental first step to both understanding long-term impacts and setting effective water quality standards.
Lastly, the letter suggests that Dr. Briceno — and by extension Florida International University, the University of Miami and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers who worked with him to compile and analyze the data — are somehow exaggerating research to extract a contract from the city. If that is the city’s contention, we expect to see proof. We’ll be submitting a request for these records.
Again, the city has done commendable work to tackle the challenges of climate change. As pioneers of a major
engineering endeavor, you must expect to encounter technical challenges and we of course welcome any discussions on how you will tackle this one and others that will inevitably arise.
Aminda Marqués Gonzalez