Bill Brandt was no heroic archetype. He was a career bureaucrat with the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department. Some said he was cautious to a fault. Until 2005, when benzene was found in the water supply. He focused on the case, and took on a powerful business lobby.

Then he got fired. (More)

Real American Values, Part II – Respecting the Land

This week Morning Feature looks at progressive values. Real American values. Yesterday we discussed valuing people over profits: respecting each other. Today we consider the earth as our home, not our trash can: respecting the land. Tomorrow we conclude with good government: respecting the law.

Our progressive movement has a moral core, but we rarely talk about our moral values. Instead we talk about issues and policies, facts and statistics. We tell voters what’s in it for them, but rarely ask them to be part of something more. So this week we’ll explore how to ask voters to be part of something more, by telling stories that celebrate our progressive values … our Real American Values.

Real Americans Work Together

Bill Brandt had spent almost 30 years working up through the ranks in Miami-Dade government, first with the Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM), then moving to the Water and Sewer Department (WASD). His job was to make sure Miami-Dade’s drinking water was clean and safe. He was not Captain Planet. He worked with citizens, activists, businesses, and his colleagues in government to identify problems and find solutions. According to Miami New Times reporter Isaiah Thompson, Brandt was “a bean counter who rose through the ranks … slowly and unglamorously, one small, steady step at a time.” Thompson said many environmentalists saw Brandt as “cautious to a fault, unwilling to rock the boat when county politics and water science were at odds with each other.”

His was not an easy job. Miami-Dade citizens get their water from the Biscayne Aquifer, a sea of clean water deep under the wetlands. Ground water percolates down into the aquifer, filtered naturally as it passes through soil and clay. And rock. Almost all of Miami’s water comes from the Northwest Wellfield, “situated in the muddy, desolate wetlands west of the Florida Turnpike.” That “remote, half-wild” location was chosen so the city’s water source would not be contaminated by human activity. There’s nothing there but swamp. And rock.

Real Americans Don’t Poison The Well

Poisoning the well is usually a metaphor, but for Brandt it was a literal concern. Benzene is a known carcinogen, linked to leukemia. It has been on the EPA’s list of hazardous pollutants since 1977. So when it was found in the Miami-Dade water supply, Brandt put together a team to investigate. They rode swamp buggies over lonely trails in the wooded area near the well where the benzene was first detected, looking for the usual causes. They found evidence of old fires, scrap heaps, an underground fuel storage tank, even an old car dumped in a lake. But no source of benzene.

Besides, Brandt’s team reasoned, the source could not be right next to the wells; the current from the pumps would push it away, not draw it in. There was only one likely suspect. It was about the rock.

The rock in that area is limestone, blindingly white when crushed, and ideal for making concrete. Most of Miami-Dade’s construction was built with concrete made from that crushed rock. Florida mines more rock than any other state in the U.S. except California. It’s a big business interest with a lot of power. Enough that, in 2004, they convinced the Miami-Dade County Commission to do away with public hearings for new permits.

The quarry owners insisted they did nothing that could leak benzene. Except they used ANFO – a mixture of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel oil – for their blasting. But they insisted that ANFO burns at such a high temperature it would destroy any toxic components in the explosive.

It seemed like a reasonable answer, until someone on Brandt’s team saw a big plume of yellow smoke drifting across the road. When she got to the mine, she asked what the cloud had been. A failed explosion, a mine worker told her. “It happens all the time,” he added.

And every time it happened, unburnt diesel fuel – with benzene – was left in the ground to leak into the aquifer.

Real Americans Respect The Land

Confident he now knew the source, in April 2005 Brandt sent a memo to John Renfrow, the head of DERM. He told Renfrow about the high levels of benzene around the rock quarries, and asked DERM to order them to “define the source of the contamination found on their land.” A month later, Brandt sent another memo asking Renfrow to notify the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the State of Florida, “and all the agencies permitting the rock mining activities in the area of the results of the investigation.”

They should have been routine inter-departmental memos within county government. But John Renfrow replied that the requests “inappropriate and premature.” He said the benzene source had not yet been found. It might even be terrorism, Renfrow said. Then he told Brandt to take no further action on the case. DERM would take over. A few months later, Brandt was asked to resign. Renfrow was named to replace him, and the investigation stopped.

The citizens of Miami-Dade never knew about it, and probably never would have but for a chance discovery by Barbara Lange of the Sierra Club. She was looking through documents related to another case about rock mining permits when she found Brandt’s memos. Up until then the Sierra Club had run into the legal wall of “hypothetical risk,” unable to prove a specific contamination. But now the risk wasn’t hypothetical.

“This isn’t just someone’s worst-case scenario,” argued Sierra Club lawyer Brad Sewell. “This is something that can and has happened. Something has gone from the wellfield — most likely via a mining pit — to the water supply.”

U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler’s blistering 176-page opinion agreed. “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,” he 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.”

In a footnote, Hoeveler added, “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.”

Hoeveler ordered the quarries to stop blasting with ANFO. Four months later, tests showed the benzene was gone.

We’ll never know for sure if the blasting caused the contamination. The investigation was halted. But not by Bill Brandt, the “bean counter.” Turns out there was a hero within him after all.

Bill Brandt practiced Real American values: working together, not poisoning the well, respecting the land.

He knows the earth is our home, not our trash can.

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Don’t miss your Byzantine Bippiescopes in today’s Campus Chatter.

Happy Friday!