Don't Drink the Water

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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."

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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