Don't Drink the Water, Seriously

The Pompano Beach water scandal is starting to feel like a bad dream, or a Dolphins game at New England, or, worse, a Terry Gilliam movie, non-Monty Python. Faces change, nonsense is uttered, awful things keep happening, and the thing just won't end. Now, high levels of dangerous lead --...
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The Pompano Beach water scandal is starting to feel like a bad dream, or a Dolphins game at New England, or, worse, a Terry Gilliam movie, non-Monty Python. Faces change, nonsense is uttered, awful things keep happening, and the thing just won't end.

Now, high levels of dangerous lead -- which accumulates in the body and can cause brain damage, kidney disease, and destroy your red blood cells -- have been discovered in 26 percent of homes tested. The disturbing results have given Pompano the damning distinction of being the first Broward city in a decade to violate federal lead regulations.

Officials and media sources have indicated that the lead surge is mainly the fault of old pipes, but I've learned it's really the result -- surprise, surprise -- of more incompetence and mismanagement in the city's public works department. The city pumped highly corrosive water from its plant for months, according to Broward County Health Department records. And while the public health is threatened, City Manager Bill Hargett is spinning deception, and Mayor Kay McGinn is reeling in confusion.

Beginning in April, a common test called the Langelier Index came up with negative numbers, meaning the water was corrosive, which causes it to strip protective coatings from pipes, leach lead, and carry it into homes. This went on for seven months, until November. The latest monthly report shows that officials may have finally found at least a stopgap solution for the problem: The Langelier Index finally came back positive -- though, at .04, just barely so.

I wondered why the health department allowed the city to pump corrosive water for so many months. Turns out there is no enforceable federal or state standard regarding water corrosiveness, which can usually be remedied by adding phosphates and other basic chemicals to the water supply.

"That is something the utility self-regulates," says Tom Mueller, the Broward County Health Department's top water regulator. "There is no standard per se. Pompano was not in violation per se, but [corrosive water] is something that manifests later [in elevated lead levels], as we're seeing here. It's an indication of a problem."

Oh, it's a problem, all right. The Environmental Protection Agency forced the city to send letters to every water customer earlier this month detailing the troubles and the general dangers of lead, and urging residents to let water run from the tap for 15 seconds to one minute before using it. Under federal law, Pompano now must submit a plan to regulators to fix the problem and test for lead every six months until the results are acceptable.

For Brad Canfield, it's personal. He owns a home in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Boulevard Park Isles with water that was found to have 400 times the acceptable lead level. "When I go to Mexico, I don't drink the water because I know it could be harmful, but in Pompano Beach and the United States, we have an expectation of safe, drinkable water," the 46-year-old Canfield says. "It's a rip-off. They're sending me a water bill every month? They should be paying me, it seems like."

The city has paid quite a bit already, including $25 million for a new water treatment plant that has been one problem after another. For months, the plant has been operating at only about half its 10-million-gallon-a-day capacity and has been plagued by filtration problems. The water coming from it is known to be susceptible to corrosion, so the original design called for it to be mixed with the milder flows from an older plant. But Steven Scully, the former water plant superintendent, says blending was impossible due to major design deficiencies.

Unbelievably, the health department's Mueller thought the water was being properly blended all along. "That was my assumption," he said, adding that he would look into the matter.

Mueller has been playing a lot of catch-up lately. After New Times published an investigative report showing that officials covered up a lack of chlorination in Palm-Aire water and likely falsified official records [see "Don't Drink the Water," March 16], the health department cited the city, and the state Department of Environmental Protection began a criminal investigation. Some employees who tried to bring the problems to light -- including Scully -- were fired or demoted. This month, they are being deposed by state agents in the Broward State Attorney's Office.

The Pompano water lab, meanwhile, has virtually been shut down. State regulators, in late 2002, decertified the city facility due to numerous deficiencies and found more problems in their most recent visit in June, forcing the city to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more on private firms to conduct water-quality tests.

Although countless people in Pompano have urged city commissioners to take action, a reluctant and often confused Mayor McGinn has taken none. Her favorite refrain has been, "The water is safe to drink," a dubious assertion at best considering ongoing chlorine problems in Palm-Aire and the abysmal condition of the city lab. Today, she simply can't say that anymore.

When I called the mayor and asked her what she was doing about the scandal, she said she was busy and hung up the phone. She usually avoids phone interviews by politely saying she'll call right back (and then doesn't), so I think her abrupt burst of rudeness is a sign she's feeling the pressure from citizens demanding answers. The Beachway/Fairway Civic Association, which is in her district, is distributing hundreds of pamphlets that criticize McGinn for not starting an internal investigation and urging her to fire City Manager Hargett, who has proven to be more menace than manager every step of the way, beginning with the cover-up.

He fired whistleblowers and kept administrator Flaherty and lab director Gerry Weber, who together ran the water department into the ground and misinformed regulators. Only in October, as community pressure grew, did Hargett, in an obvious attempt to save his own job, finally promise to fire Flaherty and Weber, who will be terminated at the beginning of 2004.

But the commission meeting last Wednesday proved that Hargett is still hiding the extent of the problems. After the capable mayoral candidate Janice Griffin criticized the elected officials for not firing the city manager, Commissioner Lamar Fisher grilled Hargett about the lead levels. When asked if the water had been properly blended, Hargett admitted that plant workers had just begun to blend the water.

That may or may not be true, but Hargett did a wily dance of dissembling during the ensuing 15-minute question-and-answer session with the mostly clueless commissioners.

Hargett statement: "The EPA informed me this afternoon that no city official has been found guilty of falsifying records."

The truth: It's true that no officials have been convicted of any crimes, but the city manager falsely implied here that city employees had been exonerated. The flailing McGinn inferred as much and told Hargett to put the good news in writing, whereupon the manager conceded that there were three ongoing investigations, including one by the federal government, and that none was complete.

Hargett statement: "There have not been any water quality issues [other than the lead problem]."

The truth: Here the city manager conveniently forgot the chlorination outage in Palm-Aire that led to the health citation. This falsehood was prompted, ironically, by a question from Commissioner George Brummer, who represents the Palm-Aire neighborhood. Brummer, despite all the evidence and investigations, refuses to acknowledge there is any sort of problem.

Hargett statement: "All the homes tested were built between 1982 and 1986 [when lead solder was being used]."

The truth: This assertion might seem to narrow the number of homes susceptible to lead poisoning, but it's false. All homes built before 1986 are susceptible, and many of the homes the city tested were built before 1982, including the house owned by Canfield, which he says was built in the 1960s.

By the time Hargett was finished with his disinformation campaign, all five commissioners were surely more confused than ever. McGinn, the beleaguered mother of a dysfunctional city, seemed as befuddled as ever. The only crystal-clear certainty is that it's up to the federal and state agents to protect the city's water supply and punish the officials who have engineered a public health nightmare.

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