Longform

Poisoned Well

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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."

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Isaiah Thompson