Residents of a Davie trailer park think their contaminated water made them sick

Allan Payan lifts a photograph from a shelf inside his singlewide trailer home. The smiling woman in the image has full cheeks and long, thick, brown hair. Caroll Payan, who sits across the couch from him, can't bear to look at the old photo of herself. She has dropped 20 pounds in the past six months, and it shows in her tall, wiry frame. Her green eyes now bulge under heavy lids on a gaunt face, and her scalp is visible beneath sparse, short hair. Tears fill her eyes as she watches her husband tuck the picture frame away.

"It's like the devil just took her," Allan says ruefully.

Caroll and Allan met when they were little kids living in Nicaragua. The Sandinista rebels seized control of their country when they were 6 years old, and Allan fled with his family to the United States. Their mothers stayed in touch, though, and Allan returned to visit Nicaragua when he and Caroll were 20. The crush they both harbored as children blossomed. After three days together, Allan proposed.

The devil arrived this past April, when Caroll was hospitalized for acute renal failure. The doctors say her kidneys can function at only 20 percent capacity; if she pulls through, she'll likely need an organ transplant within the decade. She's 35 years old.

The Payans think they know what's responsible. It was outlined in letters sent from their water company, Ferncrest Utilities, which serves about 6,000 customers in northeast Davie. The letters warned that drinking the private utility's water could lead to kidney problems. The Payans have been Ferncrest customers since 2002. The first of three letters arrived in June 2006.

Ferncrest water, the company said, exceeded the maximum contaminant levels for "haloacetic acids" and "total trihalomethanes," chemical byproducts of chlorine disinfection. The water, the letters detailed, surpassed acceptable amounts by nearly threefold. Consuming such large doses of the chemicals could damage the liver, kidneys, or central nervous system and lead to cancer.

The letters further stated, in bold print, that customers did not need to switch to an alternative water supply. Although, Ferncrest advised, they might want to consult their doctors.

A year after Ferncrest sent out its first warning letter, the Payans' 10-year-old son peed blood. Doctors diagnosed him with a kidney infection treatable with antibiotics. Then Caroll's kidneys failed. To the Payans, the twin kidney ailments seem like too much of a coincidence.

Now, the Palma Nova mobile home park has ordered the Payans and more than 900 other families to vacate the premises. The park's owners, who also own Ferncrest Utilities, haven't stated publicly why it's closing. The owners have offered $1,000 to $1,500 for those who move out before March. In exchange for the cash, the mobile home owners must sign a form that promises they will never sue the park's owners.

"I don't have to be a lawyer to know that the intention of this is bad," Allan says. "It's diabolic." Palma Nova's roughly 3,000 residents account for half of Ferncrest's customers.

Caroll adds: "I don't think he's offering us a thousand dollars because he's generous. I think he's trying to avoid a lawsuit because he knows there's a problem with the water."

Allan is a square-jawed, sturdy man. He doesn't appear to be the crying type. But watching his wife wither is too much for him. He tears up as he thinks of all the times he has witnessed her collapse on the floor, writhe in pain, and vomit. "What we live through every day...," he begins. "And then for them to say we're closing the park and you have to move, and you get diddly?"

The Payans have refused to sign the form. They recently hired a lawyer. They say they're not looking to get rich, but maybe they can win a settlement to help with the medical bills that insurance won't cover; so far, they owe $10,000.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. When Caroll fell ill, she was in her last semester of studies to become a radiographer, a job she expected to pay at least $25 an hour. With the extra income, the Payans planned to buy a "real house," one that could accommodate a seven-foot Christmas tree.

"My treatment will be long and painful," Caroll says. "And I might not be able to see my son grow... There are a lot of things that money doesn't buy."

Ferncrest Utilities lies within the boundaries of the old Forman homestead, east of Davie Road and south of Interstate 595. Blanche and Hamilton Forman migrated to South Florida from Illinois in 1910 with the aspiration of farming in the Everglades. They endured mosquitoes, floods, hurricanes, and other hardships while living in the swamp. They discovered early on that politicians could make their lives better, as elected officials determined what land would get drained and stay dry.

The Formans began swaying local elections in the early part of the last century by handing out fliers to clients of their dairy farm. Along with that bottle of milk, customers would learn which candidates Hamilton Forman backed; many trusted his judgment and voted in line with the dairy man. Over the years, the Formans bought more land and eventually amassed a small fortune. They were instrumental in establishing university campuses in Davie, integrating the county hospitals, and mapping the path of Florida's Turnpike.

The Forman family continues to influence elected officials, in part with thousands of dollars in financial contributions. Today, Miles Austin Forman, one of Blanche and Hamilton's grandchildren, is point man for many of the family's holdings, including Ferncrest Utilities.

The utility's coverage area spans 750 acres, much of which is owned by the Formans. The territory is dotted with industrial properties, an old rock pit, and affordable housing. In addition to Palma Nova, Ferncrest provides water and sewer service to a large rental-apartment complex called Palm Trace Landings, 55-and-over mobile-home community Everglades Lakes, Meadowbrook Elementary School, and the Ann Storck Center for the developmentally disabled.

The five-acre Ferncrest facility pumps its water from the Biscayne Aquifer, 87 feet below the ground. The drinking water gets filtered, disinfected, and fluorinated before flowing into homes and offices. On the same site, the company treats raw sewage and wastewater. Ferncrest hauls its toxic sludge out of the county and discharges its treated effluent into an adjacent lake that the Formans own.

Utilities that serve more than 10,000 customers have had to meet public health standards for chlorine byproduct levels for decades. But the state didn't begin regulating those chemicals at small plants like Ferncrest until 2004.

The Formans were aware of problems at Ferncrest since at least the early 1990s, when the Sun-Sentinel reported that the plant's water included higher-than-acceptable levels of trihalomethanes. The chemical compounds form when chlorine reacts with organic matter, such as decaying leaves, that is naturally present in water. Studies show that some of these compounds cause cancer in lab animals. Overseeing the plant at the time was Miles Austin Forman's uncle, veterinarian Charles Forman, who has since passed away. Charles Forman told a Sun-Sentinel reporter in 1992 that, in his opinion, the assertion that trihalomethanes pose a health risk is "a bunch of baloney."

Miles Austin Forman authorized attorney Paul S. Figg to respond on his behalf to written questions from New Times.

Asked whether the Formans regret any decisions made over the years at Ferncrest, Figg wrote: "Mr. Forman makes many business investments with the intention of making money. This business does not make money. That is not something an investor wishes to see. If the question is being directed at Ferncrest's operations, however, at all times Ferncrest attempted to operate ethically and legally."

In regard to trihalomethane (THM) levels, Figg wrote: "At all times, Ferncrest followed all applicable rules and regulations and took all necessary steps to come into compliance with the THM standards that applied to it. If the THM levels would have been dangerous to the health of Ferncrest users at any point, regulatory agencies would have shut the facility down."

The Broward County Health Department has also known about the problem. The department ordered Ferncrest in October 2006 to either lower the levels of chemical byproducts in its drinking water or supply customers with water from another facility, such as the Town of Davie's treatment plant.

Ferncrest informed its customers in writing in 2006 that the company would need to spend more than $1 million on equipment to bring its system into compliance. "We at Ferncrest do not want to burden our customers with the large rate increase which this expenditure would create," the company added. Ferncrest said it was negotiating with Davie to secure water for its customers. Those negotiations never bore fruit.

In January 2008, under threat of losing its water-use permit from the South Florida Water Management District, Ferncrest made the upgrades.

Timothy Mayer, environmental health director for the Broward County Health Department, says his office prefers to remedy problems rather than shut down water plants.

"I've been assured that even though there were issues in the past, that the facility is in substantial compliance right now," Mayer says. "So there's not a reason to close them, per se."

Earlier this year, Davie rezoned the bulk of Ferncrest's service area as a "regional activity center." The new zoning allows for construction of research centers, retail, and housing that would cater to nearby universities, especially Nova Southeastern University. This plan to gentrify east Davie, with its trailer parks and low-income residents, dates back several years. The Broward County property appraiser values the 110 acres that Palma Nova sits on at $14.4 million.

Still, the decision to close Palma Nova came as a great surprise to the park's residents. The eviction is hardship on top of hardship for many, like Deb Smith, who has multiple types of cancer.

Outside her doublewide on a recent Saturday, under clear blue skies, the fair-skinned 49-year-old flips through documents detailing the health procedures she has endured. A year ago, a doctor removed half of Smith's colon, where two tumors the size of golf balls had developed. Then, in March, a dermatologist discovered skin cancer on her left nostril and knuckles. The cancer on her nose and in her colon has been removed, but the ones on her knuckles remain.

Next to her is Danielle, her 25-year-old daughter. Both mother and daughter are redheads. After some prodding from Mom, Danielle removes her sneakers and socks to reveal an itchy red rash on her feet and ankles. "I've always had sensitive skin," Danielle says. "But ever since we moved in here, it's like, if I touch my skin, it flakes off."

Smith's family moved into Palma Nova in 2005. At one point, eight members of the family, including three small children, occupied the three-bedroom trailer.

Looking back, Smith feels foolish for not recognizing that the water was tainted.

"When we first moved in here, Danielle said, 'Mom, there's something wrong with the water.' I grew up with well water on a farm, and it was the same yellowish color, so I was like, 'Oh, just deal with it.'

"You assume that if you're paying for your water, it's safe to drink."

Danielle opted for bottled water. The rest of the family ignored the funky smell and color of the Ferncrest water. They cooked and bathed with it; they used it to fill formula bottles for Smith's three grandkids, the oldest of whom is now 4.

The first warning letter from Ferncrest arrived seven months into their stay at Palma Nova. To Deb Smith, it read like a foreign language. "I don't speak technical," she says. She zeroed in on the section, in bold print, that said she didn't need to switch to bottled water. That translated, in her mind, to mean the water was safe to drink. She tossed the letter in the trash.

Smith didn't give the water much thought again until a few weeks ago, when neighbors who had read the letters more carefully caught her up to speed. "It scared me to death," Smith says.

Daughter Shannon immediately left with the three grandkids to live at the other grandmother's home in Tamarac. Smith, her husband, and Danielle are going to stay with relatives in Indiana. The move out of state was a tough decision, both financially and emotionally. The Smiths originally bought the doublewide in 2005 for $44,000, and it was almost paid off. They're selling the home back to the dealer for just $5,000.

Smith says she couldn't find a trailer park in Broward County that would accept them because of her poor credit history. Her credit is shot because she owes Cleveland Clinic $150,000 in bills that her health insurance wouldn't cover. Her blood pressure spiked after the eviction notice, prompting a doctor to warn her that she could "stroke out" if she doesn't relax. And it's difficult to relax with all of Palma Nova in upheaval.

So, Indiana it is.

Boxes are stacked against a living-room wall that used to be covered with pictures of the grandbabies. Smith caresses a red velvet Christmas dress she bought for 2-year-old Lily. "This is probably the first year that she'll really be into Christmas. And we're going to miss it, which sucks," Smith complains. Maybe someone will email pictures of the little girl with strawberry-blond ringlets tearing into presents.

On September 11, Palma Nova residents march to Davie's Town Hall to protest the trailer park's closing. One after another, tearful residents step up to the podium to plead for help from town officials. The stories, like the one about the widow and single mother who bought her mobile home just two weeks before the park announced it would close, are heartbreaking.

Outrage mounts with each testimony. Where will they all go? How will they pay $10,000 or more to transport each home to another park? Caroll Payan's son insists that she share her own tale. Maybe, he offers, her words will help somebody. She's nervous about speaking English before a crowd, but she's angry enough to give it a stab. A man steps in to translate, so her words carry through the country-western-style hall in both English and Spanish.

She speaks slowly, her bespectacled son standing by her side. She explains that during her first few years living in the park, she did not receive any notice that the water was contaminated. "Now I have an illness that's like cancer. My hair is falling out. I'm undergoing chemotherapy." She has been diagnosed with Wegener's syndrome, a disease that can be treated with chemo. Renal failure is a complication of Wegener's, a rare illness with an uncertain origin.

To illustrate the point, she runs fingers through her thinning hair. The gentle movement releases a fistful of strands.

"The doctors are telling me that it could be because of the water that I drank."

Jaws drop. The residents packed inside Town Hall gasp. They too received the warning letters from Ferncrest Utilities. The letters featured scary words, like cancer, alongside assurances that Ferncrest customers could keep drinking the water. Many never suspected that the water could be that dangerous.

Toni Crisante sits next to Deb Smith at the meeting. The Crisante household switched to bottled drinking water years ago, after it received the first warning letter from Ferncrest.

Later, Crisante stands in her living room and explains that she plans to waste no time vacating Palma Nova. She wants to beat the stampede. Plus, she suspects conditions in the park will deteriorate as the move-out deadline nears. "You want to see some truly desperate people? Come back here in a few months," Crisante advises.

Crisante, 46, speaks in tough tones. She aspires to be as hardy as her mother, a former race-car driver who competed when she was eight months pregnant. Crisante figures her mother would be proud to see how well she has held things together, even though she crumpled onto her front lawn, in tears, after receiving the eviction notice.

Crisante points to a grate in the street outside her bedroom window and says the sewer was always overflowing. "If it rained, or certain times of the year, it would just flow over, and this whole road would be nothing but sewer water. And then it would roll into our driveway.

"I like my windows open in the wintertime, when it's cool. Save on the electric bill. Get some fresh air in the house. You know? And we couldn't keep the windows open because the damned smell was so bad."

It smelled, and looked, she says, like an overflowing, crap-filled toilet.

"Ferncrest would send a guy over in a golf cart with a big five-gallon pail and put this stuff that smells like some type of chlorine. Very strong. And just powder it all around it. And tell you 'Don't step in it. Don't get in it.' The kids don't even know what it is. They ride through it. Step through it. Whatever. Barefooted or not, it don't matter."

Crisante moved into Palma Nova with her parents 26 years ago. When the folks passed away, she inherited the three-bedroom trailer. Now, her brother, his girlfriend, and their three children live there too. It's tough for the extended family to make ends meet, even though all three adults work. "That there is my life savings," Crisante says dryly, pointing to a five-gallon plastic jug full of coins.

The Crisantes go through ten gallons of bottled water every two days. Even the dog, a 9-year-old boxer named Chance, gets bottled water. They still use water from the tap, though, to cook, bathe, and brush their teeth. Toni has irritable bowel syndrome. Her brother's 37-year-old girlfriend, Alicia Smith, was recently hospitalized for seizures and migraines. Smith's 13-year-old son, Peirson, has colitis, a painful gastrointestinal ailment. "Hopefully, the things we've got won't become serious," Crisante says. "But you never know."

Neighbors up and down the street tick off mystery ailments — chronic bacterial infections, hair falling out, strange lumps — that they blame on the water. Even so, many residents are considering signing, or have already signed, paperwork releasing the Formans from any liability. The paperwork, they believe, is an unavoidable part of the moving process.

Toni Crisante, as well as her next-door neighbor, Nancy Hernandez, signed. Hernandez has lived in the park for seven years; a year ago, Hernandez says she spent five days in the hospital with severe stomach pain. She can't remember the name of the bacteria that caused the pain. "The doctor told me I'm going to have this bacteria for life. The bacteria will go to sleep, like la bella durmiente" — or Sleeping Beauty. Soon enough, she explains, the bacteria will wake up.

A few houses away, on the same street, 30-year-old Abigail Cruz worries about the health of her two sons. Her 9-year-old, William, has a lump under one of his breasts; a doctor recommended blood work. And a year ago, 3-year-old Joshua was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. The doctor told Abigail that it was unusual for a boy Joshua's age to get that sort of infection.

"We had his kidneys tested — everything was fine. Then a bladder test. They put a liquid into his bladder through the urethra. For me, as a mother, to watch that, it was horrible."

Joshua still complains that it hurts when he pees, but Abigail is reluctant to put him through more painful tests. As his mother talks, the little boy wanders into the living room in Batman undies. The Cruz trailer is bright and airy inside. A ceiling fan with blades in the shape of palm fronds whirs above a plush white couch, white tile, and a decorative white mantle. The Cruz family has lived in Palma Nova for seven years. They know not to drink the water from their tap, but they too still cook and bathe with it.

Cruz didn't connect the dots between Joshua's urinary pains and the water until she listened to Caroll Payan's story at the Davie Town Hall. Now Joshua, who loves to play in a full bathtub, gets showers. "Even when I bathe with it," Cruz says, "I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, am I bathing in feces?' "

The Cruz family is searching for an apartment to rent. They agreed to sell their trailer, at a $13,000 loss, to a family in Palma Nova whose own home is too old to move. This way, the Cruz family can avoid signing the settlement document that Palma Nova requires for homes to be transported out of the park. The settlement paper states that neither current residents nor their descendants will ever sue the owners of Palma Nova for anything related to their time living in the park.

In addition to the money the Formans are offering to those who sign the settlement document, the Florida Mobile Home Relocation Corporation, which helps displaced trailer park residents, is giving money to Palma Nova homeowners. They'll get $3,000 for a single and $6,000 for a doublewide. If they choose to abandon a trailer, the relocation corporation will give them $1,375 for a single and $2,750 for anything larger.

Abigail Cruz has been advised by a lawyer to avoid signing anything. The lawyer met with a small group of Palma Nova residents a few weeks ago to discuss concerns about Ferncrest water. Cruz remembers the lawyer explaining that once residents take money from the Formans, it would be very difficult to sue.

"The release paper is very compromising," Cruz says. "It's creepy. I'm not going to give up my kids' rights. Hopefully, they're healthy and fine. But if anything happens because we drank the water, I'm going to need the money for the medical bills. This man, it's OK if he wants to sell the land. But to play with people's health? These things don't happen one day to another. If there have been problems with the water for so long, why is the company still open?"

Toni Crisante signed the settlement. And took the money. After weighing her options, she decided to pay $10,000 to transport her singlewide, 1981 home. She's moving it to a different Davie trailer park, Kings Manor, which gets its water from Sunrise. She's looking forward to living in what she thinks is a nicer community, where the family will once again be able to drink the water.

"When you drive into Palma Nova," Crisante says, "it's all manicured by the security gate. But after you go down the road, you start seeing the dump. People just don't take care of it. Some people have their yards all landscaped, and then next door you'll see ratty-ass cars and shit everywhere. If you drive around, you'll see the pigsty."

Each day, more trailers disappear from Palma Nova. More than a hundred have been transported out of the park. The empty lots look like patches of grass blasted open by mortar shells, except that the loose gray dirt forms a rectangular shape. Children sometimes explore the new terrain, stepping over open PVC pipes and exposed wiring.

The Crisante home got hauled off on a Monday. Before the Crisante family can settle back into it, the house must pass inspections and earn permits, which could take weeks. In the meantime, the family will share an efficiency hotel room.

Herbert O'Rourke, a 46-year-old unemployed welder who has lived in the park since he was a teenager, watches the Crisante trailer roll away. When the time is right, O'Rourke plans to abandon his own home — a singlewide that he and his father bought together for $3,000 in 1977. His father is dead, and the trailer is full of termites. It's not worth saving. A brother, O'Rourke says, is going to help lug his belongings to Mississippi, where he'll buy another trailer.

As he steps, barefoot, onto the plywood floors of his living room, O'Rourke warns that his house is a mess. O'Rourke is a pack rat with a penchant for miscellaneous objects. Family photos cover the walls. Ashes of dead pets and relatives rest in urns on a shelf. The Jerry Springer Show blares on his TV.

O'Rourke sees himself as a neighborhood watchdog. When he notices an open plumbing pipe after a home disconnects from the sewer system, he snaps a picture of the gray muck seeping out.

He also froze bottles of tap water five years ago, just in case regulators ever come calling. O'Rourke reaches into his fridge to retrieve his frozen water specimens, which he has stored in Nestea and Gatorade bottles. He has held onto the time capsules even though officials at the Public Service Commission told him they'd need to take the water samples straight from his faucet for the data to mean anything.

He holds the 5-year-old ice blocks up to the sunlight. O'Rourke says the streaks that look like yellow shards of glass are frozen filth. He blames the water for the lump under his left breast that feels like a Tootsie Roll suspended in Jell-O. He wonders whether Ferncrest water harmed his friends and neighbors in Palma Nova. "There has been a lot of people I've known in here that died of cancer, at least seven or eight. Bone, liver, and some other parts of their body."

Fishing rods lean against a wall. O'Rourke likes to fish off the beach piers. But he won't fish in any of the canals and lakes that surround Palma Nova. He has seen folks fishing there, though, over behind the Hess station on Davie Road. "And if they catch it, they're going to eat it. And then they'll get sick."

The public isn't supposed to have access to those lakes, by order of the Department of Environmental Protection. However, on a recent Thursday, a gate that separates Palm Trace Landings from the lakes is wide open. Two 9-year-olds, residents of the Palm Trace rental apartments, linger near the water's edge.

Today, the little girls are explorers. All sorts of gates are open, including the one leading into Ferncrest Utilities. They document their findings — a car seat, an iguana — on a small notepad in careful handwriting. The girls toss rocks into a large puddle covered with a shiny green film. Then they wander into the plant itself. A woman emerges from a nearby trailer home to shoo the kids away. "You can't go in there," she commands. "There are dangerous chemicals."

The woman knows this, she says, because her husband works at the Ferncrest plant. With that stern warning, the little girls' adventure is over. They walk the short distance between Ferncrest and the open gate at Palm Trace Landings. They mount their bicycles and ride the length of a chainlink fence that separates their community from Ferncrest's huge, beige tanks. The plant machinery whirs loudly. A scent like rotten eggs fills the air.

The girls say it always smells funky outside their apartments. "When people go to the bathroom, it goes there," one of the girls explains, pointing to a large septic tank. "Stinky winky," the other girl interjects. One of the girls has been instructed by her parents to not drink from the water faucet; the other hasn't. "Both of our families are poor," one adds.

According to county records, complaints about Ferncrest's foul odors, broken water mains, and subpar drinking water date back to 1976, seven years after the plant opened. Ferncrest has also held numerous discussions with Davie officials, at least since 1989, in an effort to get the town to buy the plant.

Over the years, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Broward County Health Department have threatened to shut down the facility. Inspectors have found filters out of service, excessive algae growth, evidence of spills in the wastewater treatment area, and a general lack of maintenance. As recently as January, tests of Ferncrest's effluent exceeded limits for both fecal coliform bacteria and suspended solids — AKA feces. That's the same wastewater that is discharged into the 100-acre lake visible from I-595.

Fines were levied. Legal action was taken. Throughout, the Formans held onto their water plant even as the county phased out similar small, independent utilities.

Several mobile homes in Everglades Lakes are actually perched right next to the lake. There isn't even a fence to prevent the homeowners from unknowingly dipping their toes into the water.

In August, Ferncrest alerted residents of Everglades Lakes that its drinking water tested positive for coliform bacteria. Again, the company advised that customers need not boil their tap water or "take any other corrective actions."

Residents of Everglades Lakes are disinclined to talk about their water for fear that they'll be seen as rabble-rousers. They worry that any criticism could lead them to lose their water services altogether. If the water goes, they believe the next logical step would be for the park to close. "We're like the last of the Mohicans in the mobile homes," says Diane Davis, a 15-year resident of Everglades, who comments reluctantly. "We're just grateful to have an affordable place to live."

Rather than seeing the warning letters from Ferncrest as an alarm, many residents choose to take the letters as reassurances. "The letters make the people think everything is fine and dandy," Davis says. "How are we supposed to know what these chemicals are? If they say the water's OK, it's OK."

False security is better than no security, Davis argues. She's healthy aside from some skin rashes. But her cockatoos, Scarlet and Koko, are missing a lot of feathers. She and the birds drink bottled water. However, they all bathe in the Ferncrest stuff.

Davis introduces Scarlet, a parrot-sized white bird with a few yellow plumes, as the one with "all the personality." Davis lifts one of Scarlet's wings to display the ashen, featherless skin underneath. "This breaks my heart," she says. Bald spots also dot the bird's legs and chest. Some small feathers grew in after Scarlet's last $600 vet treatment: seven shots a day in the chest for a week. "She still looks like shit," Davis complains.

Davis knows that Davie has rezoned her trailer-park community as part of the same "regional activity center" as Palma Nova. A park closure could mean the end of mobile-home living for her and the birds. She guesses that her 1969 trailer might fall apart if she tried to move it. She'd miss her patch of dirt. And the sense of serenity she feels standing next to the various waterways inside Everglades Lakes. But she's not going to worry about something that might happen. "I could be dead by then," she decides.

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie