Don't Drink the Water II

The Broward County Health Department is on the case, but I wonder if officials will find the obvious:

Pompano Beach city officials falsified a report and hid serious chlorination problems from both residents and regulators.

Broward County environmental czar Howard Rosen has begun an investigation based on a March 13 story of mine titled "Don't Drink the Water." I found evidence that Pompano Beach water lab director Gerry Weber ignored test results that showed no chlorine in the city's drinking water last September and instead supplied the health department with bogus numbers indicating acceptable chlorine content.

After the chlorine problem was discovered on September 17, 2002, it persisted in Pompano's Palm Aire neighborhood for at least ten days. Residents weren't notified, and the health department was kept in the dark. My story also exposed a web of lies by Bill Flaherty, the public works administrator for the city, who initially denied there ever was a chlorine outage at all.

Much has happened since then. Three former water plant operators have come forward to allege that lab director Weber has falsified reports to the health department for years; the top manager at the water plant was fired after telling New Times the truth; Chris Fox, the former Pompano water plant operator who brought the problems to light, has filed a whistle-blower's lawsuit; and regulators have cited the city for continuing chlorine shortages in Palm Aire.

During a March 25 City Commission meeting, Pompano Beach Manager Bill Hargett insisted that "all is well" with the city's chlorine levels, according to a report in the Sentry, a small weekly newspaper that has been reporting on the controversy.

On the same night, Fox was snapping photographs in Palm Aire, where Pompano workers were flushing fire hydrants so extensively that the streets were flooding. The practice is designed to allow fresh chlorine-rich water from the treatment plant to replenish the system.

Apparently, all was not so well.

While the hydrants poured forth, Fox knocked on the door of Roger Gingerich, then a City Commission candidate. Gingerich lives on Banyan Circle, which is in the Palm Aire area and has been an especially problematic site for low chlorine. Fox tested the water in Gingerich's kitchen sink with a store-bought kit and found it to have only 0.2 milligrams of chlorine per gallon of water -- one-third the 0.6 level deemed safe by the state. "I watched him do the test, and when I saw the result, I couldn't believe it," says Gingerich's daughter-in-law, Lauren Cusolito. She says neighbors have complained about mold growing in their washing machines and about unexplained intestinal infections. She believes the water caused her recent bladder infection, though she can't be sure.

Gingerich, who was defeated in his commission bid June 10, sent letters to city officials urging them to start an investigation. "I was ignored," he says.

The health department, meanwhile, conducted tests on the water at the Banyan Circle home of Donna Pleasants on April 3. The water had only 0.3 milligrams of chlorine per gallon of water, or half the state-mandated safe level. Based on that result, the department cited the city.

"It started with the New Times article that certainly raised questions and focused attention on the whole situation, and we came to find out that chlorine levels were not being properly maintained in the Palm Aire area," says Tom Mueller, the health department's director of environmental engineering in Broward County. "We cited the city to get their attention."

Mueller's song has changed. When I first spoke with him in late February, he told me he'd reviewed the allegations about low chlorine levels and found no problem. His "review" consisted only of looking at Weber's bogus report and listening to Flaherty's distortions. "No unchlorinated water was pumped to Palm Aire," Mueller wrote in an October 1 memo to the city.

He now admits he was wrong and says that in mid-April, the Palm Aire problem was at least temporarily solved when the city began a process known as "free chlorination," which involves pumping pure chlorine -- rather than a combination of chlorine and ammonia -- through the distribution system. "Free chlorination purges accumulated growth and slime -- what we call 'biota' -- from the inside of water mains, which can dissipate the level of chlorine," Mueller says.

The slime might have been cleansed from the water mains, but, unfortunately, it's still clinging to the halls of power in Pompano. Flaherty, a dishonest, bullying manager, and Weber, a lab director proven to be grossly incompetent, are still at the helm.

In an April 17 letter, Flaherty, who didn't return recent calls for comment, promised regulators that the city would install "continuous chlorine monitors" in Palm Aire and further investigate the problem. In the same correspondence, Flaherty called the low chlorine levels "an unusual, isolated incident," a statement that couldn't be further from the truth, since it had been occurring on and off at least since the previous September.

Classic Flaherty. When I first asked him about the problem prior to publishing the article, he called allegations about low chlorine levels "bullshit." He then admitted to a minor problem but said it lasted only "about one day."

All lies. Even Weber contradicted Flaherty, as did then-water plant superintendent Stephen Scully; both men admitted that the problem lasted several days. Just last week, I obtained a memo from utilities superintendent Bennie Scott to Flaherty, dated October 2, 2002, that further explains the extent of the problem. In it, Scott details city employees' attempts to bring chlorine levels up in Palm Aire; it definitively shows that there was either no chlorine or unacceptably low levels in Palm Aire for at least ten days after the problem was revealed on September 17.

Scully says he paid for his candor to New Times with his livelihood. His employment was terminated two weeks after the article was published.

Flaherty didn't renew Scully's initial one-year contract, which ended March 31. Scully, who in 1996 was named Illinois' water plant manager of the year and had a good evaluation from Pompano, says Flaherty offered to allow him to work an additional 90 days, but only if he signed a form waiving all his rights under state and federal law, including the constitutions of Florida and the United States.

Instead of signing away his rights as an American, Scully hired attorney Dan Oates, former mayor of Lighthouse Point, and began the process of suing the city. Oates typed a May 30 letter to city officials alleging that Scully had been fired improperly and that Flaherty wanted to make him a "scapegoat for the improprieties exposed by the New Times."

Now the former superintendent is revealing yet more disturbing facts about the water department. After the state decertified Weber's lab for dozens of deficiencies last fall, Flaherty put Scully in charge of bringing the lab back up to speed. "The lab was dysfunctional, atrocious to the point that it was hard to believe," Scully told me. "There were no standard operating procedures written down. They never required monthly audits. Important pressure and temperature gauges weren't working. There was dust and other crap laying around. Employees weren't properly trained to do [bacterial] tests. The mediums used for testing were no good."

The state had found similar results, leading to the lab's decertification.

"The testing could not be validated -- you could not trust the water in the city," Scully says. "It was the worst lab the State of Florida has ever seen."

But he was powerless to really change the place.

"It began with Weber, and it led to Flaherty," Scully alleges. "Flaherty screams at people all the time. If you get in his way, you lose your job. He terrorizes people. It would have been my immediate termination if I went after Flaherty."

The city's defense, emanating from City Manager Hargett, has been to paint the whistle blowers as lying, disgruntled employees. But a string of former Pompano water plant managers told me the same thing. Jim Quarto, who spent nine years as a water plant operator, said reading "Don't Drink the Water" was "like déjà vu." While still with the city in 1998, he wrote anonymous whistle-blowing letters to regulators and Pompano newspapers detailing lab deficiencies, false reports, and a failure to notify the public of a potential health threat. Nothing came of his efforts.

"Weber has been falsifying chlorine tests and other records for years," Quarto alleges. "I've seen him send in reports to regulatory agencies with results that were nothing like we found. This is nothing new. Flaherty knew all about what was going on and did nothing about it."

Quarto was fired in June 1999 after he was seen sleeping on the night shift. He knows he'll be portrayed as a disgruntled employee. "That's OK, because I am disgruntled now," says Quarto, who is willing to cooperate with the health department investigation and testify under oath. "But I was only a concerned employee when I was complaining about this before I left the city."

Doug Gjesdahl is no disgruntled employee -- he happily retired to the city of Palm Bay in 1999 after 27 years working as an operator at the water plant. When I asked him about Weber, Gjesdahl said: "He changed test results all the time. If something came out a bad test, on bacteria or anything, he'd mark down a good test."

Another former water plant operator, Guy Barrett, who worked 15 years at the city, quit his $47,000-a-year job in 1999 because he couldn't stand the management. Barrett says he too was privy to Weber's creative -- and unethical -- record-keeping style. "I saw paperwork where employees wrote down numbers and Gerry would cross out the numbers and write in his own numbers," Barrett says. "He makes the numbers look good so everybody is happy. At one time, we had coliform positives [showing harmful bacteria in the water supply] like you wouldn't believe. So whenever they did the testing, they would order us to put the water pressure up at high levels all night long to get better results."

(Raising the water pressure can help keep outside agents -- including bacteria and pesticides -- from penetrating the water supply.)

The only hope for cleaning up the water plant and ridding it of corrupt officials, it seems, is the ongoing health department investigation. Rosen, the health department's environmental administrator, says regulators searched the Pompano water plant in late May and left with internal records. About the same time, he interviewed former city employee Nick Hoffman, who discovered the chlorine problem in Palm Aire but whose test results were squelched by Weber. Hoffman, who quit his city job to work as an EMT in Plantation, alleges that Weber routinely instructed him to discard test results that showed low chlorine levels.

Weber has denied he falsified the report, but there is no question he broke reporting rules to the health department when he filled in his dubious numbers on Hoffman's test sheet. Weber didn't indicate in his filings to regulators that he had found the results. Instead, he attributed them to Hoffman.

Former superintendent Scully says he believes that Weber's results were a fabrication, since chlorine levels remained low for ten days after Hoffman's findings. More damning is the fact that Weber ordered flushing of the area the day after he supposedly found the high-chlorine results, indicating that he knew there was still a problem.

Weber's test results, simply put, make no sense. They did serve a purpose, though, in that they effectively hid the problem from the health department. If Hoffman and Fox wouldn't have complained, nobody except city officials would have ever known about the problem.

"If we find that we were given false information, it can turn into something that we could send to the State Attorney's Office," Rosen says. "We could cite them. Or nothing could happen if we find they did things within bounds. We have to find out the information first."

Prosecutors should be involved right now -- falsifying records regarding public health issues is a felony in Florida. And the investigation should delve into Weber's records dating back at least five years and include the testimony of Barrett, Gjesdahl, and Quarto.

It may be a good sign that Rosen is investigating the matter rather than Mueller, who initially failed to find and fix the problems in Pompano and refused to investigate Hoffman's complaint because he felt the employee was a "sour grape." I asked Mueller last week if he thought Weber had falsified the report. He said he doesn't believe so.

Mueller's defiance of common sense is mind-boggling, but I don't believe he's either naive or stupid. I think he's just a tired bureaucrat more concerned about not making waves with cities he polices than about public health.

And that is a very dangerous thing.

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