Don't Drink the Water

Page 4 of 7

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."

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman