Residents of a Davie trailer park think their contaminated water made them sick

Allan Payan lifts a photograph from a shelf inside his singlewide trailer home. The smiling woman in the image has full cheeks and long, thick, brown hair. Caroll Payan, who sits across the couch from him, can't bear to look at the old photo of herself. She has dropped 20 pounds in the past six months, and it shows in her tall, wiry frame. Her green eyes now bulge under heavy lids on a gaunt face, and her scalp is visible beneath sparse, short hair. Tears fill her eyes as she watches her husband tuck the picture frame away.

"It's like the devil just took her," Allan says ruefully.

Caroll and Allan met when they were little kids living in Nicaragua. The Sandinista rebels seized control of their country when they were 6 years old, and Allan fled with his family to the United States. Their mothers stayed in touch, though, and Allan returned to visit Nicaragua when he and Caroll were 20. The crush they both harbored as children blossomed. After three days together, Allan proposed.

The devil arrived this past April, when Caroll was hospitalized for acute renal failure. The doctors say her kidneys can function at only 20 percent capacity; if she pulls through, she'll likely need an organ transplant within the decade. She's 35 years old.

The Payans think they know what's responsible. It was outlined in letters sent from their water company, Ferncrest Utilities, which serves about 6,000 customers in northeast Davie. The letters warned that drinking the private utility's water could lead to kidney problems. The Payans have been Ferncrest customers since 2002. The first of three letters arrived in June 2006.

Ferncrest water, the company said, exceeded the maximum contaminant levels for "haloacetic acids" and "total trihalomethanes," chemical byproducts of chlorine disinfection. The water, the letters detailed, surpassed acceptable amounts by nearly threefold. Consuming such large doses of the chemicals could damage the liver, kidneys, or central nervous system and lead to cancer.

The letters further stated, in bold print, that customers did not need to switch to an alternative water supply. Although, Ferncrest advised, they might want to consult their doctors.

A year after Ferncrest sent out its first warning letter, the Payans' 10-year-old son peed blood. Doctors diagnosed him with a kidney infection treatable with antibiotics. Then Caroll's kidneys failed. To the Payans, the twin kidney ailments seem like too much of a coincidence.

Now, the Palma Nova mobile home park has ordered the Payans and more than 900 other families to vacate the premises. The park's owners, who also own Ferncrest Utilities, haven't stated publicly why it's closing. The owners have offered $1,000 to $1,500 for those who move out before March. In exchange for the cash, the mobile home owners must sign a form that promises they will never sue the park's owners.

"I don't have to be a lawyer to know that the intention of this is bad," Allan says. "It's diabolic." Palma Nova's roughly 3,000 residents account for half of Ferncrest's customers.

Caroll adds: "I don't think he's offering us a thousand dollars because he's generous. I think he's trying to avoid a lawsuit because he knows there's a problem with the water."

Allan is a square-jawed, sturdy man. He doesn't appear to be the crying type. But watching his wife wither is too much for him. He tears up as he thinks of all the times he has witnessed her collapse on the floor, writhe in pain, and vomit. "What we live through every day...," he begins. "And then for them to say we're closing the park and you have to move, and you get diddly?"

The Payans have refused to sign the form. They recently hired a lawyer. They say they're not looking to get rich, but maybe they can win a settlement to help with the medical bills that insurance won't cover; so far, they owe $10,000.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. When Caroll fell ill, she was in her last semester of studies to become a radiographer, a job she expected to pay at least $25 an hour. With the extra income, the Payans planned to buy a "real house," one that could accommodate a seven-foot Christmas tree.

"My treatment will be long and painful," Caroll says. "And I might not be able to see my son grow... There are a lot of things that money doesn't buy."

Ferncrest Utilities lies within the boundaries of the old Forman homestead, east of Davie Road and south of Interstate 595. Blanche and Hamilton Forman migrated to South Florida from Illinois in 1910 with the aspiration of farming in the Everglades. They endured mosquitoes, floods, hurricanes, and other hardships while living in the swamp. They discovered early on that politicians could make their lives better, as elected officials determined what land would get drained and stay dry.