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Wedgefield Residents Make Pluris Water A Political Issue For Ted Edwards

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Photo: Wedgefield Homeowner's Association.
The Florida Channel
Entrance to Wedgefield.

When voters pick new Orange County commissioners this election, one issue will be front and center for east Orange residents: Water quality.

Residents of the east Orange County neighborhood of Wedgefield have complained about the smell and taste of the water coming from their taps for years. Wedgefield is serviced by a private water company called Pluris, but after a growing number of complaints, Orange County agreed to foot the bill to test the water.

The test results found some by-products that could be harmful to resident’s health, but Pluris said the results were flawed and called for re-testing.

Intersection host Matthew Peddie spoke with health reporter Abe Aboraya about the water quality in Wedgefield. And later on the show, Peddie spoke with both incumbent commissioner Ted Edwards about the water quality, and Timoth McKinney, one of his opponents. See below for a transcript of Peddie’s interview, and listen to the audio to hear McKinney and Edwards talk about the water.

MATT: So start by telling us about the results.

ABE: So in April, Orange County came in and tested 19 homes at the request of residents. Remember, Orange County does not have any jurisdiction over Pluris; the Florida Department of Environmental Protection does. I went out with Orange County on that first round of testing as well. Julie Bortles with Orange County was there doing the test. Wearing green gloves, she put samples into a series of bottles, some glass, some plastic, and they do very specific sampling and controls to make sure the test results are accurate. Even the order of the tests matter. This testing is being done at Tamara Pullin’s home; she’s lived in Wedgefield since 1998.

“We’ve never been able to drink the water in this neighborhood,” Pullin said. “The smell was always not good. Some days it would smell like you were opening a chlorine bottle. And it never has tasted good. If you make iced tea with it, it was cloudy, had a terrible flavor. The kids would complain if I made kool aid that it didn’t taste right. Just little things like that started to add up.”

MATT: So what were the results of that first round of tests?

ABE: All but two houses had high levels of trihalomethanes and several high levels of haloacetic acids. Now these are two byproducts from disinfecting the water. According to the EPA, having high levels of these chemicals isn’t an emergency, where you would need to boil your water or get it from another source. But studies have shown a possible link between long-term exposure to these chemicals and liver, kidney and central nervous system issues, and an increased risk of cancer. Two houses also tested positive for bacteria.

MATT: Now this made Orange County and Pluris do what’s called split testing, where the county and the utility go out together, take samples, and send them to different laboratories. What happened there?

ABE: Well, we’ve gotten Orange County’s results back, and it’s basically the same. Eight of the nine homes they’ve tested had high levels of those disinfection byproducts. But one of the big differences is the bacteria that tested positive at two homes in the first test was not found in the second round. Wedgefield resident Pamela DiMarzio’s home was one of the ones that tested positive for bacteria. She was home with her son when I met her; he had stayed home from school sick that day. She wasn’t sure if it was from the water, or just a coincidence. So she had gone to Publix and bought eight or nine gallons of bottled water for cooking and brushing teeth, and she was boiling water to re-rinse her dishes that day, just to be safe.

“One idea is if you have an aerator on the faucet, it could be a place for bacteria to accumulate,” DiMarzio said. “That’s one idea of where it could be coming from if it’s not coming from the Pluris water.”

ABE: And that does appear to be what happened here.

MATT: Now, we’ve reached out to Pluris several times to come on Intersection and talk about these results and they have not responded to interview requests. But they did respond in writing.

ABE: They did. Joe Kuhns is regional manager for Pluris. He says having too many disinfection byproducts is a problem many water utilities face, particularly in Florida, where you’re pulling water out of the aquifer. From 2013 to 2015, Pluris had no violations for disinfection byproducts. And they point out that other utilities in that time have had similar violations, including Orange County. Kuhns says Pluris is hiring outside experts to evaluate the problem and is working on a corrective action plan with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

MATT: Some of the residents you talked to are skeptical of the Pluris results.

ABE: That’s right. Keep in mind, it wasn’t until Orange County came in and did these tests that the results over the federal threshold. And those results that were below the standards in 2014 and 2015 were extremely low. So low that some are suggesting the tests are invalid. And then there’s Talmon Price.

MATT: Who is Talmon Price?

ABE: Price is a Wedgefield resident who was fired from one of the labs contracted to test the water for Pluris. He told me that he saw workers adding bottled water to samples. I met him at his Wedgefield home. Price said he used to drink the tap water. He’s got a big family, and he says they used to say why pay for water when you can have a tall glass from the sink or fridge. But now, he gives his dog bottled water because, as he puts it, of the horror stories he’s read.

“I kinda go by a theory: If one person tells you something, it’s something maybe you want think about,” Price said. “If two people tell you, you may want to listen. If three people tell you the same thing, it’s time to saddle up on that horse."

MATT: So it sounds like there is a real trust issue in this community, residents aren’t trusting the utility.

ABE: Absolutely. And for some residents, you know, they say we wanted these Orange County tests to be clean. Then they could have just let the quality issues go. But these results are confirmation of something they’ve been worried about for a long time. And these residents aren’t quiet about it. They aren’t shy talking to reporters or contacting elected officials.

MATT: Orange County Public Schools is building a new elementary school out there. And that’s become a flash point in this water issue, hasn’t it?

ABE: Yeah, the Wedgefield school will serve 1,000 students starting this summer. And Orange County Public Schools is putting in some water quality upgrades that residents are pointing towards. They put in a separate chlorination and pump system at the school. I spoke with Lauren Roth, a spokeswoman with OCPS. She said the Wedgefield school is the only school in recent memory where they’ve taken these extra steps.

“In addition, we are having water filtration for every building,” Roth said. “Now, it’s typical for all Orange County Public School kitchens to have water filters, but in this particular case, we’re doing it on every building. Just to make sure we don’t have any issues. It’s preventive in nature.”

MATT: Is there some circular logic here? Residents are worried about the water, the school board makes the upgrades, and now people say “Look, they made the changes, there must be a problem.”

ABE: I asked Roth about that:

“Yeah, I mean, it’s not just purely that residents are complaining,” Roth said. “I’m trying to think how to put this. We know there have been concerns about the way the water looks and smells and we want to make sure all the water in our schools is clear and good to drink.”

MATT: Pluris is a small utility, but it has some pretty steep costs: more than $7 dollars per one thousand gallons of water, compared to Orlando Utilities Commission’s rate of about a dollar. What are residents saying about the costs?

ABE: The last time things got heated in Wedgefield about the water was when the utility asked – and got – a rate increase from state regulators. So residents say when you look at the high cost of the water and these quality issues, they want Orange County to take over the utility. And this happened in Hillborough County, so residents point to that and say there is a precedent. There, county commissioners voted to get rid of all private utilities, at a cost estimated at the time of $9 to $14 million dollars. Here’s Wedgefield resident Natalie Harris.

“Maybe this is something that can be done,” Harris said. “We don’t have to live like this. Because not knowing what your water bill is from month to month is horrible. People have moved out of the neighborhood because of it. Because you can’t set a budget. How can you set a budget when you don’t know what your water bill will be. Mine has been anywhere from $79 to $475.”

ABE: And Matt, there have been reports of bills over $2,000. Harris was one of the first to start posting in the Pluris page that residents need to contact Commissioner Ted Edwards.

“Everyone lets start contacting the commissioner, send him your complaints, send him your bills,” Harris said. “We want to inundate him as much as possible and let’s make this an election issue. And it is an election issue, as far as we’re concerned.”

MATT: And we’ll hear from both Edwards and his opponent later in the program. Do we know what it would cost for Orange County to take over this utility, if it were to come to that?

ABE: Well, no formal cost proposals, but county officials say it’s more than $10 million. And that’s the back of the envelope estimate. It doesn’t include the wastewater system and treatment plant. And we don’t know if Pluris would be willing to sell, or at what price.

Abe Aboraya is a reporter with WMFE in Orlando. WMFE is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.