Water Fight

Every day fifteen wells in Northwest Miami-Dade pump more than 150 million gallons of water from the Biscayne Aquifer, South Florida's sole source of drinking water. The aquifer is a freshwater reservoir made of limestone-bearing materials — shells, coral, and sand — that extends 100 feet deep beneath most of the county. Drinking water is drawn from the earth and pumped through treatment plants and then eventually to faucets, showerheads, and toilets. The output from the northwestern area is 40 percent of the county's total water supply.

In January 2005, a problem appeared in one of the wells. Samples revealed traces of benzene, a component of gasoline and a carcinogen. Worried, then-Water and Sewer Department director Bill Brant ordered the affected site, Production Well One, shut off. He theorized the benzene — which recently reappeared in wells — could have come from diesel-based explosives detonated underground at nearby limestone mines.

That theory might have contributed to the undoing of Brant, who was forced to resign in January after claims he had communicated poorly with County Manager George Burgess. But recent federal court testimony by Brant hints that the county's reluctance to investigate rock miners, who have long held sway with politicians, might have also factored into the ouster. And the long-time Miami-Dade employee had a history of challenging rock miners, particularly after his failed 2001 proposal to levy water quality fees on the industry ("Pollution Solution," Miami New Times, February 14, 2002).


Biscayne Aquifer

Brant testified about the benzene investigation on behalf of plaintiffs in an ongoing federal court case. In 2002, three environmental groups sued the federal government for issuing permits to miners for expansion they claimed posed threats to the county's water supply. A federal judge supported their claim, and in recent hearings, the two parties have battled over modifying the permits to consider environmental and economic impacts.

As for the benzene plume, its source is a mystery. But two WASD employees posit that the county prematurely abandoned its investigation into the contamination. (Other county officials vehemently deny these allegations.)

The probe began immediately after benzene was detected in January 2005. In a game of hot-and-cold, WASD and the Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) spent $750,000 to dig 86 wells near Production Well One.

When it became clear the plume was partially located on private land, DERM took full control of the investigation. Brant suggested the agency consider whether the rock miners, a powerful political force in Miami-Dade, were the cause. Limestone miners loosen fill through underground explosions at depths of 60 feet. The benzene had been detected at similar depths. If the companies were using diesel-based explosives, he hypothesized, they might be leaving traces that leached into the wellfield.

"The explosive contains benzene, and there was just no other apparent source of benzene in the Northwest Wellfield," Brant told the court on July 18. "We thought that this bore a lot more investigation."

So he proposed that DERM meet with the mining companies and notify the State of Florida and all other federal agencies that issue permits to rock miners. He also recommended installing more wells where blasting would occur. (Brant declined to speak to Miami New Times, citing the fact he might testify again.)

Three days after Brant sent the memo, then-DERM director John Renfrow replied, "DERM finds your requests ... to be inappropriate and premature," presumably because the mining connection was purely theoretical. Around the same time, Brant said, then-Assistant County Manager Joe Ruiz told him to stop writing memos.

Explains Ruiz, now a WASD deputy director: "I wanted them to start picking up the phone, having meetings," he told New Times. Ruiz adds that at least one of Brant's recommendations — about meeting with the mining companies — was carried out. "As a result, they changed the type of material they were using — even though there was no indication of any connection."

But Brant's testimony did not stop there. The 27-year county employee also contended that Renfrow and Burgess did not even want to turn off the affected production well at first, and only did so at his urging. "We were concerned that we could make a bad situation terrible by pulling this contamination source into the wellfield," Brant testified.

In court, WASD hazardous materials management unit supervisor Ana Caveda confirmed some of Brant's claims, saying DERM failed to follow typical administrative procedures, such as completing a Site Assessment Report. "The investigation was never completed," she said. "So we couldn't make any conclusion." (DERM pollution control chief Wilbur Mayorga contends the assessments aren't designed for benzene.)

In January 2006, Burgess requested Brant's resignation. Burgess later said he did so after state regulators told him the county's long-term water plans were insufficient. An audit also revealed that WASD had failed to collect water and sewer fees from developers. "I don't like surprises," Burgess told the Miami Herald.

Renfrow was then appointed to succeed Brant as WASD director. The new WASD chief vehemently denies the benzene investigation wasn't thorough enough; authorities examined the area in helicopters and even considered the 1999 ValuJet crash as a source. The mining tie is "all speculation," he says.

Renfrow and Mayorga also emphasize that the water arriving to consumers has always been clean — equipment at treatment plants removes chemicals like benzene, even at much higher concentrations.

Regardless, Brant and Caveda's court testimony casts doubt on whether county leaders went far enough to pursue legitimate suspicions about a possible cause of the contamination. "Looking back over the past ten years, we really only get information through litigation," says Alan Farago, a Sierra Club activist. "The benzene is the best example. Finally a federal court case disgorged this information."

Moreover, though the benzene plume in the northwest disappeared during the first half of 2006, on June 29 tests from wells in the area again seemed to show traces of the chemical. More samples are being analyzed to confirm the result.


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