Poisoned Well

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

"I'm going through this massive stack of papers, and I see all this stuff about benzene," Lange tells New Times. "I had no idea what I had found.... I just brought it back to the lawyers and said, 'Here you go.'"

Tall and pretty, with thick dark hair, Lange has a quirky, unpredictable personality that vacillates easily between earnest environmental passion and a wry, down-to-earth sense of humor. She had been introduced to the rock miners in 1992, when she was appointed to a Lake Belt committee established by the state legislature to assess the environmental impact of rock mining. The committee, she quickly realized, was composed mostly of lobbyists for the rock miners.

"It was all about how to make the most profit for the rock miners," she recalls. "It was like a rock miner fest!"

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).

In 2002, she helped bring together the environmental groups to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for issuing the permits to the rock companies. Lange struck gold when she found out about the benzene.

"What the benzene did was, it said this isn't a hypothetical risk," explains lawyer Brad Sewell, who represented the plaintiffs in a hearing before U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler. "This isn't just someone's worst-case scenario; this is something that can and has happened. Something has gone from the wellfield — most likely via a mining pit — to the water supply."

On July 13, despite the best efforts of the mining companies to downplay the significance of benzene in the case, Hoeveler ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, vacating the rock miners' permit and ordering the three companies closest to the wells — Florida Rock, White Rock, and Tarmac — to halt mining in the area. Benzene figured prominently in his scathing, 176-page written opinion.

"In three decades of federal judicial service, this Court has never seen a federal agency respond so indifferently to clear evidence of significant environmental risks," Hoeveler wrote. "It now appears that even the local governmental agencies have yielded, perhaps as a result of increasing pressure from the mining companies or others."

Brant's testimony in particular distressed the judge, as he noted in a footnote: "It is troubling to the Court that William Brant, who had worked for the county for 27 years, may have been forced to resign as Director of WASD soon after he had advocated, in candid memoranda, for a full investigation of the source of the benzene — an investigation which might have exposed mining activities as the source."

And Hoeveler showed little faith in Brant's replacement: "Whatever the county's reasons for removing Brant as Director of WASD may be, the evidence does not suggest that the new leadership will result in any greater protection of the Wellfield."

On a recent afternoon, New Times drove with Lange out to the Northwest Wellfield. At the west end of the quarry, the road was blocked by a rickety electric mesh fence. On the other side was a tiny wooden guard shack. "There's our water," Lange said as she got out of the car, holding a scarf against her face as dust whipped by. "And there," she added, waving an elbow at the lake, "is the mining."

Even if mining resumes, DERM's Mayorga says, there is nothing to worry about. He points out that miners have voluntarily switched to a benzene-free "mineral oil" — a point the newspapers have dutifully repeated. But that might not solve the problem.

The underwater blasting process itself will inevitably generate benzene, according to court testimony by Remmy Hennet, an independent geochemist brought in by the plaintiffs. Combustion always produces benzene, he tells New Times, "even if it is olive oil.... That is well-established science."

Meanwhile, in April, just before judge Hoeveler halted the mining, DERM and officials from WASD — now led by John Renfrow — restarted the five production wells Brant had ordered shut down. In an interview, Mayorga defended the move, saying that when the wells reopened, benzene was not present. "Rock mining was still going on at that time," he said. "Benzene was not detected at that time."

DERM Director Carlos Espinosa said the same in a November 15, 2007 response to questions from county Commissioner Katy Sorenson: "It is worthwhile to note that since the reactivation [of production wells 1 and 2], benzene has not been detected in the raw water."

What they did not mention was that although there was no detectable contamination in the raw water — which is drawn from the entire wellfield — benzene was in fact present in both wells when they reopened in April. The chemical was also found in June, and in July — when it reached 12 parts per billion, more than twice the amount that originally closed the wells down.

The next samples were taken in November, four months after mining was ordered shut down. The benzene was gone.

Mayorga dismisses those findings as "residual contamination."

As to the original contamination, DERM officially concluded this past February that it was "unable to identify the source." Espinosa insists DERM did everything it could to find it.

"The very fact that they failed to reach a conclusion shows the quality of the investigation and what the county wanted to come out of it," said Brad Sewell, a lawyer for the environmentalists. "How can you do an investigation into the finding of a carcinogen at above legally accepted levels in the water supply ... and then, a year and a half later, close the books and say, 'Oh, we didn't figure out what the problem was'?"

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