Poisoned Well

What was contaminating our drinking water? Who knows - Dade officials stopped looking.

Bill Brant, then-director of Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department, got the news January 4, 2005: Benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, had been detected at a county water treatment facility. It was coming from the Northwest Wellfield, which supplies the majority of the county's drinking water. One of 15 wells there had registered benzene levels five times the limit established by the Environmental Protection Agency. Somewhere, somehow, a dangerous amount of the chemical had entered the water supply.

Click here to read some of Brant's testimony concerning the levels of benzene in our water supply.

The benzene contamination came to light only after activist Barbara Lange (pictured with attorney Paul Schwiep) stumbled upon it while leafing through a public records request.
Jeffrey Delannoy
The benzene contamination came to light only after activist Barbara Lange (pictured with attorney Paul Schwiep) stumbled upon it while leafing through a public records request.
On his radio show, Miami Lakes councilman and attorney Mike Pizzi has made it his mission to go after WASD head John Renfrow (right).
Jeffrey Delannoy
On his radio show, Miami Lakes councilman and attorney Mike Pizzi has made it his mission to go after WASD head John Renfrow (right).

Benzene, used in everything from shaving cream to industrial lubricant, became a fuel additive in the Sixties, which released it into the air and occasionally, when it spilled, into the water. In 1977, after exposure to the chemical was found to increase incidents of leukemia, it was listed by the EPA as a hazardous pollutant.

The legal limit for benzene in drinking water is one part per billion. Brant's staff had found five parts per billion in the water. Brant ordered the contaminated well — and four neighboring wells — shut down until the source was detected. Within a few weeks, samples from a second well — now closed — also registered traces of benzene. By that time, Brant had already called for a full-scale investigation, regardless of cost, which grew to nearly $1 million in a few months. The investigation might have cost the director his job.

A public servant for more than 30 years, Brant was hardly known for heroics. He was a bureaucrat, a bean counter who rose through the ranks of the Water and Sewer Department (WASD) — and, before that, the county's Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM) — slowly and unglamorously, one small, steady step at a time. Indeed many environmentalists saw Brant as cautious to a fault, reluctant to rock the boat when county politics and water science were at odds with each other.

Not this time. The discovery of benzene in the Northwest Wellfield, Brant would later testify in a court hearing, deeply disturbed him. "Benzene didn't belong in our wellfield," he would say later. "We were very alarmed."

Click here to view maps and pictures of the wellfields.

Had Brant had any inkling of what was to come, he might have been even more alarmed. The investigation, which would consume the rest of his career in Miami, would never be completed. The contamination continued for years and wasn't brought to the public's attention by the county. Instead, facts brought to light in later testimony — as well as new findings by New Times — suggest the mystery of benzene was never meant to be solved. Questions about what caused the carcinogen to enter the water supply — and whether it could happen again — remain unanswered.

South Florida depends on one source for all of its potable water: the vast underground sea of clean, fresh water known as the Biscayne Aquifer. The majority of Miami's water — about 150 million gallons per day — is drawn from the Northwest Wellfield, a roughly 2,000-acre area situated in the muddy, desolate wetlands west of Florida's Turnpike.

The remote, half-wild location was supposed to ensure that Miami-Dade's drinking water would be pumped from a source safe from contamination by development and industry. Until now, it had worked.

Click here to read more of Brant's testimony.

The threat was not immediate. The Hialeah water treatment facility is capable of removing benzene at up to about 250 parts per billion from water and releasing it into the air. But relying on man-made, and therefore fallible, treatment went against Brant's basic principle of protecting our water at the source. "The approach has always been not to rely on any kind of a water treatment plan, but to look at it as a back-up system and always keep the water supply itself, the groundwater supply itself, pure," he later testified.

The Northwest Wellfield was the last pristine water source left in the county; for Brant, its contamination was a tragedy. More disturbing than the tainting itself was the fact that neither Brant nor anyone else had a clue what the source might be.

Days after the benzene was discovered, Brant assembled a team to investigate. Ana Caveda, who had spent years probing environmental contaminations, toxic spills, and pollution cases, was chosen as its leader.

"[WASD assistant director George Rodriguez] told me to put my hound dog nose to the ground to investigate the benzene," she later testified. "It was an emergency — because our source of potable drinking water was at stake." (None of the WASD employees involved in the investigation could be reached for comment.)

She and the three other members of the team set up base camp — a fold-out canopy and a couple of lawn chairs — in the wellfield next to Production Well 1, where the contamination had first been detected. For the next seven months, Caveda spent nearly every working moment in the wellfield, trying to track down the source of the benzene, most commonly the result of spills from petroleum products.

Caveda explored the area by swamp buggy and by foot. She combed the lonely woods, finding ancient paths and following endless miles of ATV tracks into the remote, swampy muck. She found the remains of old fires, abandoned scrap heaps, and even a half-submerged fuel storage tank and a car that had been dumped in a nearby lake. All were quickly ruled out.

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