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.

Brant's team had begun exploring the possibility that the benzene was originating from a deeper and more distant source. The chemical, according to Bill Pitt, a professional civil engineer and hydrologist on Brant's team, was being drawn into the wells; it couldn't possibly be coming from nearby, for it would have to flow against the current created by the pumps.

But if it wasn't a spill, what was the cause? There is only one industrial presence in the area: rock mining. The wellfield is bordered by rock mines owned by White Rock Quarries and Florida Rock. As Brant's team followed the path of ever-higher concentrations of benzene, it led them south and east — right to the rock mines.

Anyone considering moving to Mars might want to have a look at the White Rock quarry to get a feel for the view. Situated directly between the communities of western Miami-Dade County and the wellfield that supplies their water, the quarry is a vast, blinding expanse of white — the color of crushed limestone — set against a backdrop of scraggly, grayish-green vegetation.

The quarry sits at the very end of NW 58th Street, past the seemingly endless strip malls, big-box stores, and cookie-cutter subdivisions — all built with Florida limestone — where the road abruptly narrows and appears to end in the bushes. It doesn't end, though; behind the brush, it opens onto another world.

Massive earth movers, caked in a gray crust of mud and dust, rumble along the road, hauling piles of crushed limestone. Near the quarry entrance stands a shack, a small cafeteria for the workers, its plastic tables outside turned gray with a coat of limestone powder. To the south is the mining pit — a vast, almost perfectly square lake, its water an unnatural, almost turquoise hue, stretching far into the distance.

It just so happens limestone, the same material that contains and naturally filters all of South Florida's drinking water, makes great concrete. It has been mined in this area since the Fifties. In the late Nineties, the Florida Legislature set aside for mining companies the so-called Lake Belt region, of which the Northwest Wellfield is a part. The "lakes" are the result of blasting and are large enough to be seen from space.

Florida produces and consumes more rock — crushed limestone in particular — than any other state except California. Without the cheap rock coming out of the Everglades, the building of South Florida as we know it today would not have been possible.

Florida's development boom gave the rock miners unprecedented wealth to invest. They bought political influence, hiring high-profile lobbyists such as Ron Book, Kerri Barsh, former County Manager Sergio Pereira, and Miami megalawyer Miguel De Grandy. In 2004, De Grandy successfully lobbied the county commission to do away with requiring rock miners to hold public hearings in order to obtain permits.

Among the sponsors of that ordinance was Commissioner Natacha Seijas, one of the miners' most loyal allies. In her 2004 re-election campaign, she received at least $2,500 from 13 donors connected to the mining industry, including Barsh and De Grandy. In addition, in 2006, White Rock Quarries and Barsh's law firm contributed a combined $10,000 to a committee fighting Seijas's recall.

Brant's team had begun to suspect the benzene was coming from the rock mines. For one thing, in an area otherwise devoid of development or industry, it was impossible not to notice the proximity of the mines, whose operations had expanded right up to the edge of the wellfield. Getting to the pumps required a drive through a rock mine.

Early in her investigation, Caveda passed through property leased by Florida Rock to get to a monitoring well. She asked her escort, the environmental manager for the site, how the mining process worked. She learned that as many as 40 four-inch-wide holes were drilled into the ground, filled with explosives, and blown up. The holes, Caveda noted with special interest, were drilled 60 feet deep — the same depth at which the highest levels of benzene were being found. She began inquiring about the nature of the fuel the company used and learned that most of the mining firms were using ANFO — ammonium nitrate fuel oil — of which a small constituent is benzene.

The miners denied the blasting could have anything to do with the contamination. The explosions were very powerful and very hot, they insisted, and consumed any potential waste products such as benzene.

But there was reason to doubt that asssertion. One day, as Caveda was driving down 41st Street on her way to property leased by Florida Rock, she saw something that made her stop the vehicle. "There was this big cloud of yellow smoke," she explained later in court. "A yellow plume of some sort that floated across the road.... We stopped the car in the middle of the road. I said, 'I'm not driving through that because I don't know what it is.'"

When she got to the mine, Caveda phoned Florida Rock and asked the company's environmental manager about the cloud. He told her it had come from a failed explosion. "[He said], 'Oh it happens all the time,'" Caveda testified. "No big deal from their perspective.... So that's when we found out that, okay, well, we are putting diesel fuel in the ground and maybe sometimes we can't explode it, so what happens now?"

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.

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.

"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!"

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'?"

Asked why DERM never required the rock miners to account for the benzene that was likely coming from their property, Espinosa said, "If we were going to sit there and argue with the rock miners and their lawyers ... [when] there really wasn't data that you could point to as a smoking gun, what do you do? If we determine that it is the rock miners, then we will go and recover the cost."

With the investigation officially concluded, though, that doesn't seem likely.

Espinosa is undoubtedly right about one thing: Crossing the rock miners, and their lawyers, is no simple task. The mining companies immediately appealed Hoeveler's decision, and the matter is still in litigation. Meanwhile, they've already applied for permits to resume blasting.

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