Erin Brockovich Comes To Fort Lauderdale—Scary Water Or Scare Tactics?
On June 2, activist Erin Brockovich posted to her Facebook page warning the citizens of Fort Lauderdale about the city’s water supply and system.
Included in the post was a photo, claimed to have been taken at a local resort, showing yellow water running out of the sink and filling up the tub, with a note from the hotel stating, “There is no harm associated with the yellow coloration of the water.”
Brockovich is well known for cracking down on, and suing over, contaminated water in the California town of Hinkley. She became a household name in 2000 when a film made about her and the Hinkley case, starring Julia Roberts, won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award.
To date, Brockovich’s Facebook page has six posts about Fort Lauderdale’s drinking water, which have garnered over 3,145 total reactions and comments, and over 2,193 shares. But do Fort Lauderdale’s water issues even exist?
We interviewed Brockovich’s water consultant, Bob Bowcock, and Fort Lauderdale city officials to learn about each of their findings.
Background On Chloramine
The main word we kept hearing during our conversations with both parties was “chloramine.” By definition, chloramine is an organic compound containing a chlorine atom bonded to nitrogen, especially any of a group of sulfonamide derivatives used as antiseptics and disinfectants. Chloramines are a common tool used by water treatment facilities to disinfect drinking water.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website states that current studies indicate using or drinking water with small amounts of chloramine does not cause harmful health effects and provides protection against waterborne disease outbreaks. It also says chloramine levels up to 4 milligrams per liter, or 4 parts per million, are considered safe in drinking water.
Problems start occurring, though, when chloramines formed by other complex chemical reactions, called dichloramines and trichloramines, are created. These compounds are sometimes found in and around indoor swimming pools, which cause skin, eye and respiratory problems, according to the CDC’s website. The CDC also states that these chemicals are not usually linked to drinking water.
You can find more information from the CDC on chloramine here.
Brockovich’s team says they were tipped off to water concerns in Fort Lauderdale from community groups, particularly from Boyd Corbin (who was a mayoral candidate for Wilton Manors in 2016), reaching out to them about the smell, taste and color of the city’s water. “We have been getting complaints from Fort Lauderdale for about three years now,” Bowcock says.
The main claim from Corbin and Brockovich is that the City of Fort Lauderdale exposes residents to dangerous levels of regulated trihalomethane and haloacetic acids.
The Claims, Side By Side
When Fort Lauderdale Daily reached out to the office of Mayor Dean Trantalis and to the City of Fort Lauderdale, we were told, “An aggressive, litigious organization is using its own unscientific benchmarks as a scare-tactic to draw attention to claims of unsafe drinking water in an attempt to recklessly alarm residents and visitors.”
The city also provided us with its responses to Brockovich’s accusations about the water quality. Here’s how the statements from both sides line up:
“The city exceeded safe levels for trihalomethanes.”
The City says…
“The City of Fort Lauderdale regularly samples and analyzes water quality from the source, through its treatment process and throughout its distribution system to ensure the water quality meets or exceeds all drinking water standards established by state and federal regulations.”
“The city exposes the community to extremely dangerous levels of regulated trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids.”
The City says…
“This claim is based on information provided to the Brockovich organization by a publicity seeking, politically motivated Wilton Manors mayoral candidate, whose water test results were discredited by the Florida Department of Health Broward County. The city meets or exceeds all drinking water standards established by state and federal regulations.”
WLRN published an article on May 10, outlining why the city discredited Corbin’s test, stating The Florida Department of Health said Corbin’s water tests were not acceptable because they “did not have a valid chain of custody.” His test was also performed during what is known as a chlorine burn, when water systems use chlorine instead of chloramine as a secondary disinfectant.
Trihalomethanes are known to spike during chlorine burns. The Department of Health in Broward County said that it does not test for trihalomethanes during those periods, since the burns are considered “an abnormal operating condition,” according to the WLRN article.
Therefore, no official city trihalomethane tests are performed during chlorine burns when trihalomethane levels might be highest. The water supply to residents is not cut off during chlorine burns.
Chlorine burns “should be kept to a maximum of 21 days,” reads a memo issued by the Department’s Source and Drinking Water Program, which is also cited in the WLRN article. WLRN also lists out several citations the United States Environmental Protection Agency gave to the city of Wilton Manors for water violations in recent years.
The Water Reports
Brockovich’s team provided Fort Lauderdale Daily with the water tests they are using to support their arguments. The City’s water quality report is a public record and can be found here. We compare the findings below.
EPA Standards For Drinking Water:
For drinking water, the EPA states the maximum contaminant levels for haloacetic acids cannot reach above 60 parts per billion, and for total trihalomethanes cannot reach over 80 parts per billion.
Total haloacetic acids: 204 ppb
Total trihalomethanes: 479 ppb
It is important to note the city water collected for Brockovich’s team was collected on Feb. 14, during a city maintenance procedure that ran from Feb. 13 to March 20, and was conducted during a chlorine burn.
The dates of sampling for the city’s water samples are January, May, August and October of 2017. The below is an average of levels detected.
Total haloacetic acids: 38.4 ppb
Total trihalomethanes: 70.6 ppb
The city’s report states that one sample taken in June 2017 had a total trihalomethanes result of 96.3 ppb, which exceeds the standard of 80 ppb. It also states that the system didn’t incur a maximum contaminant levels violation, because all annual average results at all sites were at or below 80 ppb.
The same official city document also states, “Some people who drink water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the maximum contaminant levels over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys or central nervous systems and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
At first glance, the basic human right to clean water isn’t something you would expect to become politicized, but it has. And residents of Fort Lauderdale have taken notice.
A quick peek at Brockovich’s Facebook posts shows comments like, “People really want to trust their water and the people who oversee it.” Another tagged Mayor Trantalis with the comment, “This is serious! Please take the lead on this deplorable situation. Water is life!”
Only time will tell what Trantalis and the city—and Erin Brockovich—will do.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide who you believe, and what actions to take. Sip at your own discretion.
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