Don't Drink the Water II

Will health officials finally end the incompetence and corruption in the Pompano public works department?

The Broward County Health Department is on the case, but I wonder if officials will find the obvious:

Pompano Beach city officials falsified a report and hid serious chlorination problems from both residents and regulators.

Broward County environmental czar Howard Rosen has begun an investigation based on a March 13 story of mine titled "Don't Drink the Water." I found evidence that Pompano Beach water lab director Gerry Weber ignored test results that showed no chlorine in the city's drinking water last September and instead supplied the health department with bogus numbers indicating acceptable chlorine content.

After the chlorine problem was discovered on September 17, 2002, it persisted in Pompano's Palm Aire neighborhood for at least ten days. Residents weren't notified, and the health department was kept in the dark. My story also exposed a web of lies by Bill Flaherty, the public works administrator for the city, who initially denied there ever was a chlorine outage at all.

Much has happened since then. Three former water plant operators have come forward to allege that lab director Weber has falsified reports to the health department for years; the top manager at the water plant was fired after telling New Times the truth; Chris Fox, the former Pompano water plant operator who brought the problems to light, has filed a whistle-blower's lawsuit; and regulators have cited the city for continuing chlorine shortages in Palm Aire.

During a March 25 City Commission meeting, Pompano Beach Manager Bill Hargett insisted that "all is well" with the city's chlorine levels, according to a report in the Sentry, a small weekly newspaper that has been reporting on the controversy.

On the same night, Fox was snapping photographs in Palm Aire, where Pompano workers were flushing fire hydrants so extensively that the streets were flooding. The practice is designed to allow fresh chlorine-rich water from the treatment plant to replenish the system.

Apparently, all was not so well.

While the hydrants poured forth, Fox knocked on the door of Roger Gingerich, then a City Commission candidate. Gingerich lives on Banyan Circle, which is in the Palm Aire area and has been an especially problematic site for low chlorine. Fox tested the water in Gingerich's kitchen sink with a store-bought kit and found it to have only 0.2 milligrams of chlorine per gallon of water -- one-third the 0.6 level deemed safe by the state. "I watched him do the test, and when I saw the result, I couldn't believe it," says Gingerich's daughter-in-law, Lauren Cusolito. She says neighbors have complained about mold growing in their washing machines and about unexplained intestinal infections. She believes the water caused her recent bladder infection, though she can't be sure.

Gingerich, who was defeated in his commission bid June 10, sent letters to city officials urging them to start an investigation. "I was ignored," he says.

The health department, meanwhile, conducted tests on the water at the Banyan Circle home of Donna Pleasants on April 3. The water had only 0.3 milligrams of chlorine per gallon of water, or half the state-mandated safe level. Based on that result, the department cited the city.

"It started with the New Times article that certainly raised questions and focused attention on the whole situation, and we came to find out that chlorine levels were not being properly maintained in the Palm Aire area," says Tom Mueller, the health department's director of environmental engineering in Broward County. "We cited the city to get their attention."

Mueller's song has changed. When I first spoke with him in late February, he told me he'd reviewed the allegations about low chlorine levels and found no problem. His "review" consisted only of looking at Weber's bogus report and listening to Flaherty's distortions. "No unchlorinated water was pumped to Palm Aire," Mueller wrote in an October 1 memo to the city.

He now admits he was wrong and says that in mid-April, the Palm Aire problem was at least temporarily solved when the city began a process known as "free chlorination," which involves pumping pure chlorine -- rather than a combination of chlorine and ammonia -- through the distribution system. "Free chlorination purges accumulated growth and slime -- what we call 'biota' -- from the inside of water mains, which can dissipate the level of chlorine," Mueller says.

The slime might have been cleansed from the water mains, but, unfortunately, it's still clinging to the halls of power in Pompano. Flaherty, a dishonest, bullying manager, and Weber, a lab director proven to be grossly incompetent, are still at the helm.

In an April 17 letter, Flaherty, who didn't return recent calls for comment, promised regulators that the city would install "continuous chlorine monitors" in Palm Aire and further investigate the problem. In the same correspondence, Flaherty called the low chlorine levels "an unusual, isolated incident," a statement that couldn't be further from the truth, since it had been occurring on and off at least since the previous September.

Classic Flaherty. When I first asked him about the problem prior to publishing the article, he called allegations about low chlorine levels "bullshit." He then admitted to a minor problem but said it lasted only "about one day."

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