Don't Drink the Water

When Nicholas Hoffman worked for the City of Pompano Beach, his duties ranged from the menial to the monumental. He didn't just clean the bathrooms; he made sure the water in them -- and throughout the entire city -- was safe to drink.

Hoffman, a 24-year-old student with spiked black hair and a face that could have come from a Calvin Klein ad, was employed as a service worker at the Pompano water department. On Tuesdays, he tossed aside his broom for a chlorine analyzer, which he used to conduct tests at water meters throughout the city. He'd been tapped for the job by Gerard Weber, director of the city's water lab.

On the afternoon of last September 17, Hoffman was doing his final tests of the day in the southwest Pompano community of Palm Aire. Four samples in the area showed a total lack of chlorine, the added chemical that kills harmful bacteria. Following city protocol, he opened a fire hydrant and flooded the nearby landscape and street. Such flushing is designed to allow fresh chlorine-rich water from the treatment plant to replenish the system. After an hour, Hoffman shut down the hydrant and took new samples at the four problem spots. Again, all four showed no trace of chlorine.

Now this was unusual, a first for Hoffman in almost a year of conducting the tests. He drove to the water treatment plant, told Weber about the problem, and gave his boss the test result sheet with the final four spaces blank. "Weber said that the Palm Aire samples I took were no good," Hoffman recalls. "He said he wouldn't use the samples."

Hoffman conducted bacteria tests on them anyway, along with other samples he'd collected that day. The next morning he found that the four from Palm Aire had turned purple -- meaning they were positive for coliform, a bacteria commonly found in feces. In such cases, further tests are supposed to be done, and if the chlorine problem persists, state regulations require the city to issue a boil-water notice, since unclean water can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and, in rare cases, life-threatening diseases like cholera, typhoid, and dysentery.

For ten days, Palm Aire water lacked acceptable levels of chlorine. Yet the city never released the information, not to the public nor to the health department. Instead, Weber discarded all of Hoffman's Palm Aire tests and filled in those four blank spaces with numbers showing high levels of chlorine and no bacteria.

Weber claims that he went to Palm Aire after work on the 17th, resampled the water, and found it to have more than twice the minimum allowable level of chlorine.

But the facts belie that claim. Hoffman insists that Weber didn't bring any new samples to the lab or leave any in the incubator. And, on September 18, Weber ordered city workers to return to Palm Aire and flush hydrants because of a continuing lack of chlorine, a move that would have made no sense if he'd found safe levels in the water the night before. "There must have been more than a million gallons flushed out there," says Hoffman, who helped work the hydrants.

On September 19, more Palm Aire water samples came back showing zero chlorine in the water.

Fifteen thousand Palm Aire residents, along with state officials, were left in the dark about the chlorine problem and about the dangerously low water pressure -- which can allow herbicides and other chemicals to seep into water lines -- that was caused by the flushing. City records show that on the morning of September 27, pressure in Palm Aire dropped below the lowest acceptable standard of 20 pounds per square inch. According to state regulations, the city should have notified the health department and the public. Again, it did not.

Hoffman and Chris Fox, the water plant maintenance supervisor at the time, both complained about the covered-up chlorine crisis to Tom Mueller, the top water regulator at the Broward County Health Department.

But Mueller didn't investigate.

So I did. And the facts led me to the city's new $25 million treatment plant, the cornerstone of the largest water project in Pompano history. Top city officials -- including City Manager Bill Hargett and public works administrator Bill Flaherty -- took elaborate measures to hide not only the Palm Aire chlorine problem but also other serious water department failures, including several related to the new plant. Weber, for his part, covered up Hoffman's findings, hid the problem from the state, and apparently falsified official records.

As I asked questions, city officials gave contradictory accounts. Hargett refused to comment, and Flaherty repeatedly misstated the facts during two interviews. Finally, Flaherty quit talking and barred all water department employees from speaking with reporters.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman