Don't Drink the Water

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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.

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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