Poisoned Well

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

On April 13, Bill Brant sent a memo to the head of DERM, John Renfrow. In it Brant described the highest levels of benzene yet recorded coming from a monitoring well near the rock mines. He requested that "DERM provide appropriate notification to all affected property owners requiring them to define the source of the contamination found on their land." It was the first time Brant had linked, in the public record, the tainted water with rock mining.

Brant wrote again to Renfrow in May, after Caveda detected a sharp spike in the benzene levels only a few days after blasting took place at the White Rock quarry. Brant asked DERM to notify the State of Florida, the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "and all the agencies permitting the rock mining activities in the area of the results of the investigation."

But that didn't happen. Two days later, Renfrow called Brant's requests "inappropriate and premature ... it is not possible at this time to conclusively identify a source or determine liability for the documented benzene contamination." At one point, Brant would later testify, Renfrow even suggested terrorists were behind the benzene — again despite the abundant evidence that the carcinogen was coming up through the water supply and not seeping down.

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).

Meanwhile DERM insisted the spike in benzene reported by Caveda represented a different contamination, entirely separate from the benzene readings just more than a mile away. In a recent interview, DERM pollution control division chief Wilbur Mayorga explained the agency's rationale: If the two sites represented the same contamination, benzene should be detected at the wells between them, and it wasn't.

But New Times discovered that DERM barely sampled those wells over the next three months. And those that were monitored — in June and July — did, in fact, contain benzene. Nevertheless, Renfrow used this reasoning — that the contaminated wells were unrelated — to justify DERM's decision not to aggressively sample from around the rock mines.

Brant was flabbergasted at Renfrow's claims. But he would not write any further memoranda about the contamination. Not because he didn't want to, but because he was ordered not to. "I was told not to write any more memos to Joe Ruiz, the assistant county manager," Brant later testified.

Brant was further ordered to hand the investigation over to DERM. And in January 2006, after 27 years of county service, Brant was asked to submit his resignation. His replacement: John Renfrow.

This wasn't the first time Renfrow had backed off of enforcing environmental regulations in the face of political clout. In 1998, a group of Redland residents began calling on DERM to shut down the operations of Thomas Andres Mestre, a politically connected trucking mogul who had hauled more than 200,000 tons of organic waste matter to a nearby lot to be processed and sold as compost.

"It turned out that this stuff contained all kinds of low levels of hazardous waste," recalls resident and activist John Wade, a retired environmental compliance officer for FPL who helped lead the fight against Mestre. "It contained lead and zinc and mercury and all kinds of stuff. And so we started looking at the DERM records."

Under Renfrow's command, Wade discovered, DERM had been sampling the area and had known about the contamination. "They knew about these materials," Wade says. "But DERM didn't care; they wouldn't do anything about it.... Eventually DERM gave [Mestre] extra time to reduce the amount of material on this site — no fines, no anything."

Renfrow, who earns $223,791 a year, did not respond to several attempts by New Times to reach him for comment via telephone and e-mail. His lackadaisical approach to confronting special interests carried over to rock mining, says Mike Pizzi, a Miami Lakes councilman and attorney who represented the Redland residents. In 2004, Renfrow spoke in favor of an ordinance that would make it unnecessary for mining companies to hold public hearings before getting permits.

"He was a water boy for the rock miners," Pizzi says. "He didn't monitor their activities, he recommended their expansion, and they could do no wrong. Whatever they wanted to do was fine with him."

In 2000, the Miami Herald reported that DERM, under Renfrow's command, allowed rock mining companies to operate with expired environmental permits, some of them as much as four years out of date. "Just because they don't have a piece of paper doesn't mean we have been looking the other way," Renfrow told the paper. "We know they don't have the permit."

Says Pizzi: "John Renfrow is completely asleep at the switch. When they discover benzene — a cancer-causing substance — they don't do anything, and they don't tell the public.... Instead Renfrow gets put in charge of the water department, and Brant gets canned — because he was a whistleblower."

Benzene reached the public consciousness through sheer luck, when an environmental activist and Sierra Club member named Barbara Lange made a trip one afternoon in the summer of 2005 to WASD to look at files related to a lawsuit by the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Natural Resource Defense Council seeking to vacate the mining companies' permits in the area.

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