By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
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By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The woman knows this, she says, because her husband works at the Ferncrest plant. With that stern warning, the little girls' adventure is over. They walk the short distance between Ferncrest and the open gate at Palm Trace Landings. They mount their bicycles and ride the length of a chainlink fence that separates their community from Ferncrest's huge, beige tanks. The plant machinery whirs loudly. A scent like rotten eggs fills the air.
The girls say it always smells funky outside their apartments. "When people go to the bathroom, it goes there," one of the girls explains, pointing to a large septic tank. "Stinky winky," the other girl interjects. One of the girls has been instructed by her parents to not drink from the water faucet; the other hasn't. "Both of our families are poor," one adds.
According to county records, complaints about Ferncrest's foul odors, broken water mains, and subpar drinking water date back to 1976, seven years after the plant opened. Ferncrest has also held numerous discussions with Davie officials, at least since 1989, in an effort to get the town to buy the plant.
Over the years, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Broward County Health Department have threatened to shut down the facility. Inspectors have found filters out of service, excessive algae growth, evidence of spills in the wastewater treatment area, and a general lack of maintenance. As recently as January, tests of Ferncrest's effluent exceeded limits for both fecal coliform bacteria and suspended solids — AKA feces. That's the same wastewater that is discharged into the 100-acre lake visible from I-595.
Fines were levied. Legal action was taken. Throughout, the Formans held onto their water plant even as the county phased out similar small, independent utilities.
Several mobile homes in Everglades Lakes are actually perched right next to the lake. There isn't even a fence to prevent the homeowners from unknowingly dipping their toes into the water.
In August, Ferncrest alerted residents of Everglades Lakes that its drinking water tested positive for coliform bacteria. Again, the company advised that customers need not boil their tap water or "take any other corrective actions."
Residents of Everglades Lakes are disinclined to talk about their water for fear that they'll be seen as rabble-rousers. They worry that any criticism could lead them to lose their water services altogether. If the water goes, they believe the next logical step would be for the park to close. "We're like the last of the Mohicans in the mobile homes," says Diane Davis, a 15-year resident of Everglades, who comments reluctantly. "We're just grateful to have an affordable place to live."
Rather than seeing the warning letters from Ferncrest as an alarm, many residents choose to take the letters as reassurances. "The letters make the people think everything is fine and dandy," Davis says. "How are we supposed to know what these chemicals are? If they say the water's OK, it's OK."
False security is better than no security, Davis argues. She's healthy aside from some skin rashes. But her cockatoos, Scarlet and Koko, are missing a lot of feathers. She and the birds drink bottled water. However, they all bathe in the Ferncrest stuff.
Davis introduces Scarlet, a parrot-sized white bird with a few yellow plumes, as the one with "all the personality." Davis lifts one of Scarlet's wings to display the ashen, featherless skin underneath. "This breaks my heart," she says. Bald spots also dot the bird's legs and chest. Some small feathers grew in after Scarlet's last $600 vet treatment: seven shots a day in the chest for a week. "She still looks like shit," Davis complains.
Davis knows that Davie has rezoned her trailer-park community as part of the same "regional activity center" as Palma Nova. A park closure could mean the end of mobile-home living for her and the birds. She guesses that her 1969 trailer might fall apart if she tried to move it. She'd miss her patch of dirt. And the sense of serenity she feels standing next to the various waterways inside Everglades Lakes. But she's not going to worry about something that might happen. "I could be dead by then," she decides.