Deadly chemicals leaking from South Florida's sewage system have spawned mysterious, meat-eating "biological freaks" that have attacked visitors to the Everglades and wrought harrowing destruction on property and wildlife. But in an apparent attempt to avert widespread panic at the height of the tourist season, government and tourism officials are downplaying the incidents -- or denying them outright.
"To the best of my knowledge, we haven't received any reports of swamp monsters roaming around," says a spokeswoman for the Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. "So we're pretty confident that there aren't any swamp monsters. I feel quite confident that there's no cause for alarm."
Accounts of the unidentified beasts were first published in the January 2 issue of the Sun, a highly respected, internationally distributed weekly based in Boca Raton. "Sightings of the mutants A some of which resemble creatures from comic books and Grade B movies -- have grown to alarming proportions in recent months," the newspaper reported under the headline "U.S. TOXIC WASTE TERROR: SWAMP MONSTERS ROAMING THE EVERGLADES."
Two unnamed tourists quoted in the article claimed that their van was attacked in late November by "two weirdos who looked like alligators with human heads and legs." The report also noted that unnamed "state wildlife rangers" reported finding "mangled, half-eaten carcasses of everything from crocodiles to Key deer." The bodies of two of the marauding ogres shot by "an Indian guide and a state game warden" were being examined at an undisclosed location by federal and University of Miami scientists, according to the article, penned by writer Mike Jones.
State and federal spokespersons claim to know nothing about the monsters, raising the specter of embarrassing ignorance -- or, more likely, a widespread conspiracy to suppress the truth.
"Nope, no monsters. Just a bunch of snowbirds," reports Mike Petty, manager of the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve west of Big Cypress National Preserve on the Tamiami Trail. Petty denies the contention that state rangers discovered half-eaten carcasses scattered around the area.
A spokeswoman at Everglades National Park says her agency hasn't "seen or heard of any such beast" either. And a spokesman at the University of Miami also claimed not to know anything about the phenomena or the alleged involvement of UM scientists.
"I'm in touch with the biology department, and I'd assume I would hear about it," says Fariss Samarrai. "I remember the skunk ape years ago. It was a creature that lived in the Everglades, smelled real bad, and people would glimpse it every now and then. But this sounds different."
Scientists blame the mutations on Florida's deep-well injection system of sewage disposal, the Sun article reported. In this system, treated wastewater is disposed of by injecting it deep into the Earth's boulder zone, 3000 feet below ground. Layers of rock are supposed to prevent the upward migration of the liquid.
But according to a scientist contacted by the Sun, the storage system has been dangerously malfunctioning for years. "The water has been seeping in to poison the Everglades water and wildlife with some of the deadliest chemicals known to man, that are also capable of producing fierce mutations," said Wilson Garrett, a Washington, D.C.-based toxic waste expert quoted by the newspaper.
New Times was unable to locate Garrett for comment. But it has been publicly known for some time that the Metro-Dade Water and Sewer Department has had problems with its deep-well injection system at the South Dade Wastewater Treatment Plant, which now includes seventeen wells, thirteen of which are in use. In 1994 engineers discovered that wastewater deposited in the boulder zone was finding its way back up through a hole in the pipe of a nearby monitoring well and leaking into the Floridan Aquifer, a brackish groundwater source. (The aquifer, located about 1500 feet below sea level, is not a source of drinking water in Dade.) Later that year, federal officials accused the county of pumping into its wells insufficiently treated sewage, some of which was contaminating the Floridan Aquifer.
The faulty well has since been repaired, and Metro is finalizing an agreement with federal officials to conduct a hydrological study to determine whether there is additional fluid movement from the boulder zone. Even though regulators and utility experts are nowhere near knowing the full of extent of potential contamination, they insist that the deep-well-injected sewage -- treated or not -- has never contaminated Dade's drinking water source, the Biscayne Aquifer. Even if it had, they say, the effluent wouldn't have the chemical potential to produce beastly mutations of the sort described in the Sun article.
"Generally the types of impacts from sewage-type pollution are nutrient enrichment and algae blooms, that sort of thing," comments Susan Markley, the top biologist at Metro's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM). As for sewage-related mutations on the order of reptilian humans, Markley says, "I haven't heard of anything like that."
Anthony Clemente, director of the Water and Sewer Department, has gone on the defensive, seeking to steer scrutiny away from his agency. He alleges that the story of the swamp monsters was planted by the Environmental Protection Agency, an organization with whom he has been locked in legal battle for several years over Dade's decrepit sewage system. In a letter to the EPA's regional administrator John Hankinson, Clemente denied that his agency was responsible for causing the reported mutations. But what begins as a serious memo to a fellow regulator quickly turns to farce: "I am pleased to inform you that your press leak that resulted in the attached article has backfired!" Clemente wrote in the January 12 correspondence. "I have an affidavit that the 'Swamp Monster' is actually a former Water and Sewer director that became that way as the result of years of attempting to obtain permits and consent agreements from EPA. Happy New Year!"
Clemente is rankled by the suggestion that he is failing to treat a potential public emergency with an adequate sense of urgency. He is taking the report seriously, Clemente insists, though he declines to reveal the identity of the alleged former director or to make public the purported affidavit. "Attorney-client privilege," he snaps.
Other officials have resisted the glibness-as-damage-control strategy. Jim Karas, a government relations representative from the South Florida Water Management District, read the Sun report while on vacation in Phoenix and immediately dispatched a memorandum to his superiors in West Palm Beach. "I suggest we assemble a working staff committee ASAP to investigate this issue, as it has obvious, significant implications," wrote Karas in his hastily scrawled missive.
The top brass at the district is concerned about the discovery. On January 17, director Samuel Poole III wrote a letter to a high-ranking U.S. official, seeking federal involvement in the matter. "District maintenance workers have determined that a number of pumping stations throughout South Florida have been damaged by wildlife, and these employees suspect that the swamp monsters may be responsible," Poole wrote in his letter to Col. Terrence "Rock" Salt, executive director of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. Poole requested that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Justice "begin investigations of these creatures for potential criminal prosecutions."
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The director also offered an explanation for the mysterious attack on the two tourists in late November, one that raises more questions than it answers. The "weirdos," he wrote, were two district staff members dressed as the district's alligator mascot. "En route from a function in Naples to the South Florida Fair, their district vehicle broke down on I-75," Poole explained. "The two employees believed that their unique costumes might help them in their efforts to hitchhike a ride back to West Palm Beach."
The South Florida Fair, however, takes place in January, not November. Poole was unavailable to explain the glaring discrepancy. And despite the show of concern, a spokesman says the Water Management District has no plans to form a research committee to study the swamp monster issue. "We're more interested in water quality than creatures," explains John Neuharth.
Residents of the Everglades -- those citizens most directly threatened by the reported lusus naturae -- are apparently taking the threat seriously and are "arming themselves with high-powered automatic weapons," the Sun reported in its January 2 issue, which also included breaking stories about the discovery of Noah's Ark and about a geneticist's theory that dinosaurs became extinct because solar radiation made them homosexual.
But Joette Lorion, the usually voluble spokeswoman for the Miccosukee Indians, whose reservation is located in the Everglades, is mum on the subject. "We have no comment," she said nervously when contacted late this past week, then slammed down the phone, casting a heavier cloak of mystery over the crisis.