Foul Smell Torments Cyclists, Runners, and Pedestrians on Miami’s Rickenbacker Causeway

Every morning at 7 a.m., Ira Saferstein gears up to ride his bike along the Rickenbacker Causeway, which connects Miami to the barrier islands of Key Biscayne and Virginia Key. With its skyline views of the city and Biscayne Bay, the scenic route attracts scores of cyclists, runners, and pedestrians every day.

There’s only one problem. Most mornings as Saferstein pedals the path, he reports that his entire outing is plagued by a stubborn, gag-inducing stink that arrives as trucks depart the Central District Wastewater Treatment Plant on Virginia Key and drive past him and others.

“My throat constricts, my eyes water up,” Saferstein tells New Times. “And it’s not just me.”

click to enlarge A smelly wastewater truck on November 12, 2021, on Virginia Key. - PHOTO COURTESY OF IRA SAFERSTEIN

A smelly wastewater truck on November 12, 2021, on Virginia Key.

Photo courtesy of Ira Saferstein

Since 1956, the Central District Wastewater Treatment Plant has operated on Virginia Key. The 117-acre plant treats an average of 111 million gallons of waste each day. But while Saferstein acknowledges the county must transport waste off the island somehow, he takes issue with how and when it is doing so. Saferstein is most concerned that the particles that he and other cyclists, runners, pedestrians, and high-school students at nearby MAST Academy are inhaling may pose a health risk.

He says the county’s smelly trucks appear to have only a flimsy tarp to cover their waste-filled containers. A photo shared with New Times shows a lined sheet covering the container bed.

While the stench is unpleasant, this method of transportation meets “industry practice,” according to Jennifer Messemer-Skold, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department. She says that every day (with the exception of Sunday) between 6 and 10 a.m, close to a dozen trucks transport “grit and sludge” — a byproduct of treated wastewater — to agri-businesses or landfills.

Whereas the grit produces an ammonia odor, Messemer-Skold says, the sludge typically contains hydrogen sulfide, which can smell like rotten eggs.

click to enlarge A cyclist crosses paths with a smelly wastewater truck on November 12, 2021, on Virginia Key. - PHOTO COURTESY OF IRA SAFERSTEIN

A cyclist crosses paths with a smelly wastewater truck on November 12, 2021, on Virginia Key.

Photo courtesy of Ira Saferstein

At low levels, hydrogen sulfide — also known as “sewer gas” or “swamp gas” — causes irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moderate levels cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, coughing, and difficulty in breathing.

Olivier Cojot-Goldberg, who has spent much of the last decade in Paris, moved to Miami last month and began cycling in the mornings with Saferstein. While he’s joined Saferstein for only a few rides so far, Cojot-Goldberg already knows which parts of the trail he needs to avoid in order to dodge the trucks and their smell.

“It’s just horrendous,” Cojot-Goldberg tells New Times. “I actually wanted to puke.”

Saferstein and Cojot question the county’s use of unsealed vehicles and its decision to transport the waste during rush hour.

Saferstein recalls seeing high school students at MAST Academy, which is situated along the causeway, experience coughing fits while being dropped off at school.

“At eight o’clock, it’s absolute chaos over there. There’s like a zillion kids, and traffic is tied up,” Saferstein says. “So these trucks get stuck in traffic, and you see the kids, like, gasping. And it’s not just like, ‘Oh, it’s a bad smell’ — which it is — but who knows what it’s doing to people?”

Officials with MAST Academy didn’t respond to New Times‘ emailed request for comment.

An easy solution, Cojot-Goldberg says, would be to simply deploy the smelly trucks earlier in the morning.

“A number of people would be happier if this happened at 5 a.m. instead of  7 [a.m.],” he says, adding that such a strategy would also likely improve traffic on the Rickenbacker Causeway each morning.

It’s unclear whether the county will take any steps to eliminate or mask the gag-inducing stench.

Other places around the world have found ways to cover up foul odors released by their sewage trucks. In Osaka, Japan, for instance, sewage companies now use a deodorizer oil that makes the streets smell like chocolate

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