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.

So the cover-up continues -- and in this case, what the people don't know just might hurt them.

When it comes to water stories, the typical newspaper reader skims to the bottom line -- what's happening with the rates? -- before moving on to more exciting reads like, say, a yarn about the costs of sidewalk construction. The only good popular work revolving around drinking water that comes to mind is Chinatown, but that was really about the arrogance of power, murder, and incest. This article too might seem to be about water, but it's truly about governmental deception and the pathology of bureaucracy.

Still, to get to the good stuff, you need a quick primer on Pompano's water history, which itself is full of conflict and controversy.

For the past 20 years or so, the city has pulled most of its water -- about 12 million of the 18 million gallons consumed daily -- from a well field on its east side. Flowing under the Pompano Aire Park just west of Interstate 95, that water is relatively clean and can be made safe to drink and clear as a windowpane at the city's old treatment plant.

In the city's eyes, it was a swell system. To the South Florida Water Management District, however, it was an environmental disaster waiting to happen. The rapid depletion of the eastern well field was causing saltwater intrusion, which can spoil an entire water supply.

So state water managers in 1991 ordered the city to start pumping more water from its western wells, which are located, rather ironically, in Palm Aire. The problem with the western water is that it's full of silt and sand and colored like weak tea. When run through the old plant, that water is safe to drink but retains a rusty tint. Nobody wants to drink brown water. Thus, to comply with the state mandate, Pompano had to build a new treatment plant that could properly clean the water.

For several years, the city put this off and continued to pump from the eastern wells without a permit. In 1998, the state fined the city $100,000, finally getting the city's attention. The following year, Pompano officials agreed to build a new plant. The city, in fact, embarked on a $40 million plan to revolutionize its water treatment program, including $25 million for the new plant and $10 million for a new wastewater system.

Heading this massive project was Flaherty, who came to South Florida from Maine and worked briefly for the City of Fort Lauderdale before Hargett hired him in 1996. Flaherty, who wore his gray hair pushed back over sharp eyes and a long, Wyatt Earp mustache, had a reputation in Pompano as a hard-nosed, hot-tempered, and often foul-mouthed boss.

To oversee the design of the new membrane filtration plant, the city hired Hazen and Sawyer, a New York engineering firm that has contracts worth tens of millions of dollars with numerous South Florida cities. The company made $2.5 million on the deal. Hazen and Sawyer's Albert Muniz, who often lunched and golfed with Flaherty and has a genial demeanor more like a politician's than an engineer's, served as project manager for the plant, which would operate in conjunction with the old facility.

In 1999, when the new plant was still only in the design phase, Flaherty hired Chris Fox, a long-time city mechanic, to be the water department's maintenance supervisor. Both men would come to deeply regret that Fox accepted that promotion.

I found Fox after a couple of city political activists told me he had a story to tell about city corruption. I met him in the working-middle-class neighborhood in Pompano where he lives with his wife and three children.

Fox told me that even after four years in the U.S. Marines and 14 years with the city, he wasn't prepared for life under Bill Flaherty. "He treats people with absolutely no respect," Fox says. "He gets into people's faces and cusses them out. He's like a pit bull: He gets on you, and he won't get off. More than 30 people have left the city in the past three years because of him."

Fox gave me a list of employees who had left the city, including a half dozen engineers, six executive secretaries, and three water plant operators. Workers who don't play strictly by Flaherty's rules, he said, are run out. Flaherty relies on strict control and fear, Fox told me, and considers anyone with the slightest hint of independence a threat.

Flaherty fired Fox last October. The reason: Fox had the temerity to call the county health department and ask about setback requirements for wastewater irrigation sprinklers. That was all it took. Flaherty became incensed when he learned that his underling had made the call without first consulting him.

The administrator charged Fox with insubordination. At a September 10 predisciplinary hearing, Flaherty demanded that Fox be demoted and accept a 25 percent pay cut. The maintenance supervisor refused to accept the demotion and, while appealing it, continued working for the city.

But Fox knew his days were numbered, so he hired an employment attorney named Robert Slotkin and began to document the problems with the new membrane filtration plant, which was expected to begin operating on September 27 -- the date set for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Fox wasn't the only one scrutinizing Pompano's water department; so was the Florida Department of Health.

Regulators based in Jacksonville were eyeing Gerard Weber's lab. The director, whose formal education in chemistry is limited to a college minor, had failed two years in a row to properly test water for routine chemicals like fluoride and chloride. So the health department revoked the Pompano lab's state certification on September 12, forcing the city to contract with a commercial lab.

But the state still allowed the city to do its own chlorine testing in the field. That was Hoffman's job.

Fox led me to Hoffman. The two men are friends and neighbors. The city employed Hoffman in December 2000 as a service worker. The $25,000-a-year job was a way to make money while he trained to become an emergency medical technician.

Hoffman says it took only a few weeks working under Weber before he realized the lab director cut corners and often failed to follow state regulations. "Gerry Weber has no ethics -- he operates on the sole basis of keeping Bill Flaherty happy," Hoffman says. "And he knows that if the health department has to get involved, then Flaherty will get mad. So he denies all the problems and tries to cover them up."

It's not hard to alter the truth in the lab, Hoffman explains: "There is no data kept by machines, and there is nobody looking over the operation. It's just Gerry Weber writing down numbers on paper. It's a very shady operation."

Hoffman says that Weber routinely deceived the health department. If a water sample was found to have less-than-acceptable chlorine levels, Weber ordered Hoffman to discard it, flush a nearby hydrant, and then retest. "That made no sense to me -- are you going to tell the public that if you want a glass of water, turn on the tap and let it run for an hour before you drink it?" Hoffman asked. "Tests failed all the time, but according to what Weber sent to the state, everything was good to go. This wasn't [the state's] standard operating procedure."

He's right. The state requires the reporting of all water samples the city tests, regulator Mueller says.

Hoffman also alleges that Weber didn't follow Florida rules that dictate testing procedures when a sample comes up positive for bacteria. The city is required to retest not only where the failed sample was taken but also upstream and downstream. Hoffman said Weber expressly told him not to follow this procedure.

Weber also routinely failed to report positive bacteria tests, Hoffman says. "Five or six samples would fail, and he would only report two or three of them to keep the state off his back," Hoffman told me. "This happened every week. He called them 'false positives.'"

One veteran state-certified water plant employee confirms Hoffman's complaints. The employee says that Weber regularly fails to follow state guidelines and will do whatever it takes to make it look as if the water in Pompano meets regulations. "Weber constantly calls everything that goes wrong a 'false positive,'" claims the employee, who didn't want his name used for fear of losing his job. "And when Weber gets involved, all the problems magically disappear."

And that is precisely what happened on September 17, when Hoffman discovered the lack of chlorine in Palm Aire. A few days later, water plant superintendent Stephen Scully called Hoffman into his office and asked who discovered the chlorine problem. The service worker told the superintendent about the failed tests. Then Scully showed Hoffman the result sheet that Weber had completed for the Broward County Health Department. It showed that Hoffman had found high chlorine levels in Palm Aire.

"I didn't write those numbers," Hoffman told Scully. "I left them blank."

"Are you telling me that Gerry Weber falsified this report?" Scully asked him.

"Yes," Hoffman answered.

The only problem with the planned opening ceremony for the new plant was that, by September 27, nothing was ready to open.

Design errors and mechanical breakdowns stymied operators. Sandy, dirty water from the western wells jammed the preliminary cartridge filters so fast that the plant repeatedly had to be shut down, according to city employees. The filters, which are supposed to be changed only once every four months, had to be replaced as many as eight times during start-up. At $8,000 a pop, that was more than $50,000 in extra costs.

Several expensive, computer-operated valves -- which cost as much as $100,000 -- were malfunctioning as well. Compounding those problems was the fact that Hazen and Sawyer tried to run both the new and old plants with a single chlorinator, which fed both facilities through a series of pipes.

Fox said he repeatedly complained that each plant required its own chlorination system to function properly. Those complaints went unheeded until September 26, when the chlorinator's pipes blew. Fox snapped photographs of the damage. Each plant then got its own chlorination system -- and, perhaps not coincidentally, the problems in Palm Aire stopped.

Hazen and Sawyer's Muniz called the sand-clogged filters, blown chlorinator, and malfunctioning valves "routine bugs." The problems dogged the plant right up until the ceremony. The date of September 27 wasn't arbitrary: The city promised in the 1999 consent agreement to have the new plant running by October 1, 2002.

Fox says he watched the two officials design an elaborate hoax for the 100 or so invitees, which included city commissioners, Chamber of Commerce functionaries, and other guests. First, Flaherty ordered that cleaner, eastern well water be pumped through the membrane plant so it wouldn't be clogged by the western water.

City records support Fox's claim. The consent agreement allowed the city to pump no more than 6 million gallons a day from the eastern wells. The other 10 million to 15 million gallons had to come from the west. During September, the city followed those guidelines to a tee -- until the 24th. On that day, 13.7 million gallons was pumped from the east, while just 1.6 million came from the west. The next day, it was 15.2 million from the east. On September 26, the handwritten well production sheet at the plant showed that 13.4 million gallons came from the east and 7 million from the west. But in the official typed report submitted by Flaherty to the health department, those numbers were reversed.

On the morning of September 27, pumps at the western wells lay dormant. Fox has proof of it: He photographed the wells' control panel at 8:30 a.m., with the date, time, and fact that it was shut down clearly visible. The city's production charts show that the western wells weren't reactivated until 8:30 a.m. that day.

That same morning, Fox witnessed city employees in Weber's laboratory filling plastic bottles with water. The bottles had labels with the words "Pompano Beach Membrane Treatment Plant Dedication -- September 27, 2002." Also printed on them was "The City of Pompano Beach Water -- Tap into It!" along with the names of Hargett, Flaherty, and city commissioners.

The bottles, however, weren't filled with membrane-plant water. Instead, city workers loaded them with water from the lab's deionization machine, which strips water of all minerals and chemicals and makes it perfectly pure and clear.

Realizing that the public was about to be hoodwinked, Fox snapped photographs of city workers filling the bottles.

City employees videotaped the ceremony, which was televised on public access cable TV. It begins with Flaherty, wearing a suit and tie, standing behind a podium and welcoming the crowd. Beside the podium are the guests of honor, including Mayor Bill Griffin and the rest of the commission. The highlight comes when Hargett gives his speech. He holds up a bottle of brownish water that is supposed to have come from the western wells. "This is what the water looks like when it comes into the plant," he remarks. "The raw water is pumped through the cartridge filters to remove any suspended solids. Chemicals are added, and then it's pumped through the membrane elements to further remove the naturally occurring impurities and to cleanse the water."

At that point, Hargett holds up one of the commemorative bottles of deionized water. "And this," he tells the crowd, "is what it looks like when we get through."

Hargett then uncaps the bottle and says:

"And I was prompted that at this point, I was supposed to open it up and take a drink to make sure everyone knew it was safe to drink."

He takes a big gulp of the sterilized lab water.

"To our citizens I want to say, at the turn of the faucet, 24 hours a day, every day, pure and safe water is instantly available," he continues. "It's carefully monitored and tested hundreds of times each day, and I want to give a big thank you to our unsung heroes, and these are the operators of those plants and the people who take care of and maintain the facilities and our distribution system."

Little did he know that one of those "unsung heroes," Chris Fox, who was not invited to the opening, was busy unmasking the hoax. Later that day, Fox wrote a letter to Pompano Commissioner Lamar Fisher complaining not only about what he called the "fraudulent" ceremony but also about the lack of chlorination in the Palm Aire water and the problems at the plant. On the same day, Fox had his attorney, Slotkin, inform the health department of the chlorine problem.

Fox was going public, but nobody in power would pay much attention.

Fox was fired on October 24. Hargett explained the reasons in a letter that accused the maintenance supervisor of intentionally lying about water department problems. Hargett claimed in his missive that the sterilized lab water used in the commemorative bottles "supplemented" membrane-plant water. "There was no documentation or supporting evidence to support your claim that the water bottles were fraudulently represented to be membrane-treated water," Hargett wrote.

He must not have seen himself on the video.

The city manager also downplayed the Palm Aire crisis, writing that low chlorine levels were common in September, when seasonal residents are away. "Samples did not fall below the minimum threshold for public notification," he wrote, adding that "over a series of days the department engaged in extensive flushing of the area to raise and maintain chlorine levels."

Hargett wrote that Hoffman had been interviewed and that he'd told the city about the four discarded samples and his belief that Weber had falsified city records. But Hargett, according to his letter, sided with Weber. The lab director told city officials that he was forced to conduct his own tests since Hoffman didn't collect "quality samples."

The letter, of course, makes little sense. If the chlorine levels in Palm Aire were acceptable, why had there been such extensive flushing? And how could anyone question Hoffman's test results when he discovered the problem in the first place and subsequent tests came back with the same findings? Weber's tests, without question, were the aberration, and it was the lab director who threw out the original samples and led the health department into believing there had been no crisis at all.

About the same time Hargett fired Fox, state lab inspectors from Jacksonville were paying a surprise visit to the city lab. During the routine inspection, they found a slew of deficiencies, including improper testing methods, lack of quality control, improper destruction of records, and a history of failing to follow federal and state regulations.

Weber, again, was shown to be incompetent, but the city's overlords didn't seem to care.

In early February, I called Flaherty to ask him about the water department's problems. "There was never a lack of chlorination in our water," he told me. "That is a totally bullshit claim from someone that has no idea what the hell he's talking about."

Upon further questioning, he conceded that there were "low levels" of chlorine at Palm Aire for "about one day." I asked him why, then, there had been several days of flushing. "We flushed for longer than that because it's a routine time of the year to flush out there anyway," he said.

I asked him about the deionized water being used in the ceremony bottles. "The water in those bottles was from the water plant," he said, "and that's all we claimed."

Flaherty admitted that there had been start-up problems with the membrane plant but denied that he'd deceived the public at the ceremony by running it on water from the eastern wells. He conceded that the cartridge filters were clogging with sand and had been replaced on average about once every ten days, but he said the problem had recently been pinpointed. Two wells, he said, had been taken off-line after it was discovered they were producing large amounts of sand.

As the questions kept coming, Flaherty became increasingly irritated. "This is all bullshit coming from disgruntled employees," he told me. "I investigated it myself, and the state looked at it and determined there was no action to be taken. They have determined that nobody has done anything wrong except these idiots who say it did."

The day after this conversation, Flaherty graciously took me on a tour of the new plant, which is housed in a huge building on the western edge of the Pompano Aire Park. There I saw the initial cartridge filters and the five membrane systems, which process 2 millions gallons each per day. Lying against a wall was a spent cartridge filter packed with sand. Beside it was a bucket of sand -- some of the stuff that had been plaguing the $25 million operation.

After the tour, I asked Flaherty about all the staffers who had quit during the past few years and whether he was a difficult boss. "You're damn right I am," he said. "I demand people do their jobs."

Then I asked if his department kept records on the amount of water pumped through the membrane plant each day. He thought for a moment and said, "No we don't, as a matter of fact."

The next day, I called Weber and asked him about the claims of record falsification. He denied it, saying that he took the four samples after work. I brought up the fact that chlorine was absent or at unacceptably low levels in Palm Aire for ten days. He admitted that was true -- thus contradicting Flaherty.

Weber adamantly denied that he had falsified records, saying he resampled the Palm Aire stops after work while his children waited in his car. He conceded those were the only tests during the ten-day outage that came back showing high levels of chlorine and defended the decision not to notify the public. "The water passed the bacteriological tests," he said, "and that means it was safe."

Next, I called Scully, the water plant superintendent, who acknowledged the Palm Aire problem and admitted that the new plant was plagued with problems but insisted that city officials weren't to blame. "People should be looking at the engineers [Hazen and Sawyer]," Scully said. "The engineers are responsible for all the problems, not the city."

He said representatives from Hazen and Sawyer were currently correcting problems from a "punch list" drawn up by the city. "There are a lot of items on that punch list," he said.

As we spoke, Scully repeatedly referred to himself as an "innocent bystander" when it came to the water department's problems, a rather alarming self-epithet to come from the plant superintendent.

That was the last of my on-the-record interviews with city workers. After I spoke with Weber and Scully, Flaherty ordered Scully to write a memo to all water department employees. The subject line of the February 13 memo read: "Take no calls from reporters."

"Reporters have been calling our plant asking for information," the memo read. "To avoid misunderstanding, take no calls from reporters. You are to refer any calls to Mr. Flaherty."

I called Flaherty several times after the memo was distributed and was repeatedly informed by his secretary and city spokeswoman Sandra King that he would no longer take my calls.

My work, apparently, was done there. The next stop was the Broward County Health Department.

When I first began talking with Tom Mueller, director of environmental engineering of the Broward division of the state Department of Health, I hoped he would be a good source of information. But he turned out to be part of the problem.

When I asked Mueller what he did when Fox and Hoffman filed complaints regarding the chlorine problem in Palm Aire, he supplied me with e-mail correspondence that he'd sent to the regional health department office in West Palm Beach. It became clear from the e-mail that Mueller's investigation consisted mainly of one phone call -- made to Bill Flaherty.

"Upon discussing [Fox's complaint]... with Mr. Flaherty, I feel there are no violations or anything that can be considered valid for voicing the subject allegations to regulatory authorities...," Mueller wrote on October 1. "No unchlorinated water was pumped to Palm Aire... low chlorine levels resulted in boosting chlorine dosage and performing some flushing... Mr. Flaherty commented that an apparent disgruntled employee... may be responsible for raising false allegations."

Low chlorine levels? That's a strange admission, since Weber's alleged tests came back showing high chlorine. Hoffman's samples, of course, showed absolutely no chlorine in the water.

Mueller didn't bother to contact Hoffman.

Instead, Hoffman called Mueller, on October 10, to file his own complaint. "Mr. Tom Mueller said that it sounded like I was a 'sour grape' and decided not to do anything," Hoffman told me. "Then I found out he called Bill Flaherty and told him that I had called him. I couldn't believe it. I was sitting there wondering when all the bullshit would stop."

I asked Mueller why he didn't take Hoffman's complaint seriously.

"I just told him that we had already looked into the matter and we had already monitored the records and done our research," Mueller said. "Why did [Hoffman] wait so long to call me? That seems very irresponsible to me."

So, in the eyes of the state regulator, it was Hoffman who was irresponsible.

In his defense, Mueller noted he had received no complaints about the water from sick Palm Aire residents. The regulator then agreed that anyone who may have become ill would have had no reason to suspect their tap water, especially since the problem was kept secret.

"We reviewed the records submitted by Pompano," Mueller said. "And the health department also does water testing each month around the county. Everything was in order."

I asked to see the September health department tests in Pompano. After perusing his files, Mueller conceded there were none. The only record he "reviewed," it turns out, was the chlorine test sheet with the four dubious test results from Weber.

At the Broward County Health Department were Pompano's monthly reports, all signed by Flaherty. Beginning in November, a "Membrane Plant Operational Report" was included that showed how many gallons of water the new plant treated per day -- the very record that Flaherty had told me did not exist.

The plant wasn't connected to the water supply until mid-November, nearly two months after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Through December, it operated at only half-capacity, processing an average of about 5 million gallons per day.

Records show that the facility was shut down for three days beginning December 14. The reason: a 2,500-gallon sulfuric acid spill that was never reported to the public.

City sources told me the spill had been contained in a concrete and glass chamber where three 13,000-gallon tanks are kept. But it was the result of serious problems, including the failure of a computer-operated valve and a malfunctioning emergency alarm.

When I asked Flaherty about the spill, he insisted it was only a "leak."

"A 2,500-gallon leak?" I asked him.

"That sounds about right," he admitted without cracking a smile.

He adamantly denied that the valve had failed to close. "It just didn't properly seal," he said.

I asked him why the city never notified the public.

"If you spill something in your kitchen sink, would you consider that significant?" he asked rhetorically. "It was nothing."

Muniz, the engineer from Hazen and Sawyer, admitted, however, that the valve had been improperly installed and, indeed, had failed to close.

Flaherty was caught fibbing again, but he said the only dishonest ones are disgruntled employees like Fox and Hoffman. Both men, however, discovered irrefutable problems at the plant. Fox should have been promoted -- instead, he was drummed out of the city.

And Hoffman, who was never disciplined by the city and is involved in no litigation, wasn't disgruntled; he was simply outraged.

Hoffman quit the city in late October after landing a job as an EMT in the City of Plantation. But he still lives in Pompano. And he still cares about the safety of the water he and his neighbors drink. With officials like Hargett, Flaherty, and Weber in charge, he believes it's impossible to trust what comes out of the taps.

"All I want is to see the corrupt people be stopped," he says. "I just want justice for the citizens. That's all I want."

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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