Longform

Poisoned Well

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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allowed rock mining companies to operate with expired environmental permits, some of them as much as four years out of date.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."

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Isaiah Thompson