By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The Forman family continues to influence elected officials, in part with thousands of dollars in financial contributions. Today, Miles Austin Forman, one of Blanche and Hamilton's grandchildren, is point man for many of the family's holdings, including Ferncrest Utilities.
The utility's coverage area spans 750 acres, much of which is owned by the Formans. The territory is dotted with industrial properties, an old rock pit, and affordable housing. In addition to Palma Nova, Ferncrest provides water and sewer service to a large rental-apartment complex called Palm Trace Landings, 55-and-over mobile-home community Everglades Lakes, Meadowbrook Elementary School, and the Ann Storck Center for the developmentally disabled.
The five-acre Ferncrest facility pumps its water from the Biscayne Aquifer, 87 feet below the ground. The drinking water gets filtered, disinfected, and fluorinated before flowing into homes and offices. On the same site, the company treats raw sewage and wastewater. Ferncrest hauls its toxic sludge out of the county and discharges its treated effluent into an adjacent lake that the Formans own.
Utilities that serve more than 10,000 customers have had to meet public health standards for chlorine byproduct levels for decades. But the state didn't begin regulating those chemicals at small plants like Ferncrest until 2004.
The Formans were aware of problems at Ferncrest since at least the early 1990s, when the Sun-Sentinel reported that the plant's water included higher-than-acceptable levels of trihalomethanes. The chemical compounds form when chlorine reacts with organic matter, such as decaying leaves, that is naturally present in water. Studies show that some of these compounds cause cancer in lab animals. Overseeing the plant at the time was Miles Austin Forman's uncle, veterinarian Charles Forman, who has since passed away. Charles Forman told a Sun-Sentinel reporter in 1992 that, in his opinion, the assertion that trihalomethanes pose a health risk is "a bunch of baloney."
Miles Austin Forman authorized attorney Paul S. Figg to respond on his behalf to written questions from New Times.
Asked whether the Formans regret any decisions made over the years at Ferncrest, Figg wrote: "Mr. Forman makes many business investments with the intention of making money. This business does not make money. That is not something an investor wishes to see. If the question is being directed at Ferncrest's operations, however, at all times Ferncrest attempted to operate ethically and legally."
In regard to trihalomethane (THM) levels, Figg wrote: "At all times, Ferncrest followed all applicable rules and regulations and took all necessary steps to come into compliance with the THM standards that applied to it. If the THM levels would have been dangerous to the health of Ferncrest users at any point, regulatory agencies would have shut the facility down."
The Broward County Health Department has also known about the problem. The department ordered Ferncrest in October 2006 to either lower the levels of chemical byproducts in its drinking water or supply customers with water from another facility, such as the Town of Davie's treatment plant.
Ferncrest informed its customers in writing in 2006 that the company would need to spend more than $1 million on equipment to bring its system into compliance. "We at Ferncrest do not want to burden our customers with the large rate increase which this expenditure would create," the company added. Ferncrest said it was negotiating with Davie to secure water for its customers. Those negotiations never bore fruit.
In January 2008, under threat of losing its water-use permit from the South Florida Water Management District, Ferncrest made the upgrades.
Timothy Mayer, environmental health director for the Broward County Health Department, says his office prefers to remedy problems rather than shut down water plants.
"I've been assured that even though there were issues in the past, that the facility is in substantial compliance right now," Mayer says. "So there's not a reason to close them, per se."
Earlier this year, Davie rezoned the bulk of Ferncrest's service area as a "regional activity center." The new zoning allows for construction of research centers, retail, and housing that would cater to nearby universities, especially Nova Southeastern University. This plan to gentrify east Davie, with its trailer parks and low-income residents, dates back several years. The Broward County property appraiser values the 110 acres that Palma Nova sits on at $14.4 million.
Still, the decision to close Palma Nova came as a great surprise to the park's residents. The eviction is hardship on top of hardship for many, like Deb Smith, who has multiple types of cancer.
Outside her doublewide on a recent Saturday, under clear blue skies, the fair-skinned 49-year-old flips through documents detailing the health procedures she has endured. A year ago, a doctor removed half of Smith's colon, where two tumors the size of golf balls had developed. Then, in March, a dermatologist discovered skin cancer on her left nostril and knuckles. The cancer on her nose and in her colon has been removed, but the ones on her knuckles remain.
Next to her is Danielle, her 25-year-old daughter. Both mother and daughter are redheads. After some prodding from Mom, Danielle removes her sneakers and socks to reveal an itchy red rash on her feet and ankles. "I've always had sensitive skin," Danielle says. "But ever since we moved in here, it's like, if I touch my skin, it flakes off."