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Florida May Not Be Testing Drinking Water Correctly, Says Government Memo

Wilton Manors resident, Boyd Corbin, wrote the EPA after water samples showed high levels of trihalomethanes in February and March.
Danny Rivero
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

In a memo released to state environmental officials and county health department offices on Thursday, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued a clarification of when and how local and state officials should perform tests on local water systems.

Previously, an April 20 letter to the state from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested that Florida officials had been misinterpreting guidance of how and when to perform water quality tests.

That letter was prompted by complaints to local and state officials lobbed by Wilton Manors resident and mayoral candidate Boyd Corbin. The EPA addressed the letter to Corbin, but two state officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were copied.

After the Thursday memo was issued to state officials by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. EPA issued a statement saying that it "identified inconsistencies" related to when tests were conducted on specific harmful chemicals in Florida. "EPA currently understands that Florida DEP will be reaching out to all DEP Districts and relevant Department of Health County offices to ensure [chemical] monitoring is conducted correctly at water systems throughout the state," reads the statement.

Since January, Corbin has been raising noise about the water quality in Wilton Manors, which purchases groundwater from neighboring Fort Lauderdale.

Hear more on what's happening with state water testing.

“I got a new hot tub which was white inside,” he says. “When I filled it up it was clear that the water was green.” Local officials told him the issue was likely with his hose.

Corbin performed independent water tests with two separate companies, thinking that maybe there was algae of some kind in his water. He didn’t find any. But one test he sent out to National Testing Laboratories, an Ohio company certified to perform drinking water tests by the state of Florida, found that the water contained over six times the EPA limit for trihalomethanes, a class of chemicals that the EPA says can cause “liver, kidney or central nervous system problems” and an “increased risk of cancer.” The same test also found the water had more than triple EPA limits for haloacetic acids, which are also known to increase the risk of cancer.

The Florida Department of Health said that the water test was not acceptable because it did not have a valid chain of custody. But the timing of when the test was performed raised questions about how local water systems are tested, ultimately drawing a response to Corbin and state officials from the EPA.

Corbin’s test was performed during what is known as a “chlorine burn,” when water systems use chlorine instead of chloramine as a secondary disinfectant. Fort Lauderdale typically does this during two five-week stretches per year. Trihalomethanes, which form when organic material reacts with chlorine, are known to spike during those periods.

In a March 22 email shared with WLRN, the Department of Health in Broward County said that it does not test for trihalomethanes during chlorine burns, since the burns are considered “an abnormal operating condition.” Since Fort Lauderdale typically dedicates 10 weeks a year to chlorine burns, that means no trihalomethane tests are performed for nearly a fifth of the year, when levels might be highest.

In the April 20 letter, Mary Walker, the EPA’s Director of the Water Testing for Region 4, suggested that the state was misinterpreting guidance for when tests should be done. She said the only "abnormal condition" is an emergency.

“A system is in normal conditions unless the system consults with the state to determine that an emergency is impacting the system,” she wrote. Walker’s office also contacted the Florida Department of Health and the city of Fort Lauderdale Public Water System to make sure the departments are following EPA monitoring requirements, she noted in the letter.

The Thursday memo released to officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and county health departments across the state reiterated the EPA’s letter, seeking to clarify how and when local and state officials perform water tests.

“An event such as a chlorine burn, a switch from chloramine to chlorine, is considered to be part of the normal operations of a system for periodic maintenance," reads the memo, issued by the Department’s Source and Drinking Water Program. "A water line break or other disruptive event which is outside the control of the facility is considered non-normal operating condition.” Chlorine burns “should be kept to a maximum of 21 days,” the memo adds.

The memo calls into question the gaps of testing that might not have previously been done during chlorine burns.

As late as midday Thursday, the city of Fort Lauderdale maintained that it was testing water at the proper times, citing the Department of Health office in Broward County.

“The City was informed by [Department of Health] Broward that based on data provided, the City’s testing and monitoring methodology meets all regulatory requirements,” Fort Lauderdale spokesman Matt Little said in a statement to WLRN.

After the memo was released, Little wrote the following: “The issue addressed in the attached memorandum, a chlorine burn, also known as Free Chlorination, will not have an immediate impact on our system because the City of Fort Lauderdale is not planning the procedure for the next several months. Depending upon routine test results, the next period of Free Chlorination may not occur until 2019. There will be ample opportunity to make plans for full compliance with any new directives.”

The Department of Health did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In 2006, the EPA cited Wilton Manors with a violation for failing to monitor its water for the same class of chemicals Corbin says now are prevalent in the water supply. In 2016, the EPA cited Fort Lauderdale with four separate violations for failing to adequately monitor E. coli levels. It was previously hit with the same violation once in 2015 and twice in 2011, EPA records show. In 2014 and 2012 the EPA hit the city with health violations for having elevated levels of coliform in its drinking water. Coliform is used by the agency to indicate whether other potentially harmful bacteria may be present.

Local and state agencies have the primary enforcement authority for most drinking water issues, though the EPA performs oversight over those entities.

Fort Lauderdale came under fire last year when a Sun Sentinel  report showed that the city had diverted $90.4 million from the water-sewer fund to pay for unrelated city services since 2012, including millions funneled into a controversial proposed streetcar project, which city officials voted to end last week.

“Before I got my full house water filter installed I was worried about taking a shower,” says Corbin, who jump started the letterchain that led to the Department of Environmental Protection's memo. “I was very worried about drinking water especially during the 10 weeks out of the year when your water smells like chlorine.”

According to a 2017 report issued by Reiss Engineering, a consulting company hired by Fort Lauderdale, the Fiveash Water Treatment Plant that sends water to Wilton Manors and other neighboring municipalities badly needs repairs.

“Repair & Replacement (R&R) costs of the FiveashWTP over the next five years are well over $100,000,000, with an additional $30,000,000 every 5-years through 2035,” the report found. The plant is designed to process 70 million gallons of water a day, but the plant is less effective at water color removal when it processes over 55 million gallons a day, found the report.

Current methods and existing infrastructure at the plant leads to “aesthetic issues and complaints,” it added.

This story has been updated to include an additional statement from the EPA that arrived after publishing

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Caitie Switalski is a rising senior at the University of Florida. She's worked for WFSU-FM in Tallahassee as an intern and reporter. When she's in Gainesville for school, Caitie is an anchor and producer for local Morning Edition content at WUFT-FM, as well as a digital editor for the station's website. Her favorite stories are politically driven, about how politicians, laws and policies effect local communities. Once she graduates with a dual degree in Journalism and English,Caitiehopes to make a career continuing to report and produce for NPR stations in the sunshine state. When she's not following what's happening with changing laws, you can catchCaitielounging in local coffee shops, at the beach, or watching Love Actually for the hundredth time.
Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.