Something in the water: How the government failed one Lee County community.
By: Janine Zeitlin and Andrew West
This story was supposed to have a happy ending. More than two years ago, The News-Press learned the people of Charleston Park, a community of a few hundred in rural eastern Lee County, identified safe drinking water as their top environmental health concern and began to follow the process as health official’s explored solutions.
Many residents rely on contaminated well water flowing into their homes. Much of Charleston Park does not have tap water that's fit to drink.
To aggravate this: There is no place to buy water. The community of about 100 homes sits about two miles from the closest place to buy water, a dollar store, which opened in the past year. A grocery store is nine miles away.
There is no routine public transportation. Not everyone has cars. The median household income is about $16,000.
In 2015, officials met in hopes of resolving the problem that’s been on the government’s radar for decades. How did good intentions dissolve into giving up?
This community needs our help
Nearly a dozen staffers from the health department, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and Lee County squeezed into a conference room at the DEP’s Fort Myers office on Victoria Avenue. The meeting was headed by volunteer Matt Visaggio, a Fort Myers public relations consultant. “Folks fly all over the world to install wells but here in Southwest Florida we have a place that could really use clean water.”
There was talk of suspicion of contamination. The community is bordered by orange groves and homes are on septic tanks. Wells are as shallow as 20 feet, making them vulnerable to pollutants. It's a historic community, established in 1926 for black farm workers, so there are likely wells not up to today's standards.
“Have you noticed any health cluster issues?” asked Terry Cerullo, a DEP ombudsman.
“Only anecdotally,” said Geordie Smith, noting the perception of a high cancer rate. Smith, a manager for the health department, coordinated the outreach that found safe drinking water was top concern for most Charleston Park residents.
“We should probably put that to rest,” Cerullo said. “If I’m hearing there’s a cancer cluster in my neighborhood, I’d be
“When I started in Charleston Park eight years ago, you go out there and you say,is this really happening? People don’t have good drinking water? Where are we? What country are we in?”
Julie Boudreaux of Lee County human services was curt with her thoughts on the pitch to revisit the problem. “We all know it’s an issue out there… When I started in Charleston Park eight years ago, you go out there and you say, is this really happening? People don’t have good drinking water? Where are we? What country are we in?”
Boudreaux had been down this route. Around 2010, Lee County Human Services offered new, free wells to those poor enough to qualify for grant dollars, but only eight people responded and one new well was drilled. That money was gone, but Boudreaux offered to promote a different, ongoing program. Homeowners could apply for help to repair or replace wells and septic but assistance would depend on availability of funding and their income.
As far back as 1987, a health department director spelled out several problems with contaminants in Charleston Park well water. Radionuclides, carcinogens, were discovered in wells in the area.
In the mid-90s, Lee County staff had explored connecting the community to existing water utilities, a small plant serving private migrant housing in Charleston Park or the Olga Water Treatment Plant. A plant was put into operation when it was owned by the Lee County Housing Authority but the bulk of the community is on individual wells.
"Approximately 2/3 of the community receives water from shallow wells which have poor quality water and which often go dry. An improved potable water system is needed," according to 1993 minutes from a Lee County commission workshop.
Ultimately, staffers decided there wasn't enough money available in grants or loans to offset the cost to residents, a county spokesman said.
But even if the residents dig new and deeper wells, Smith said, they’d need reverse osmosis to make the water drinkable. Well owners often add filters or RO systems to their homes if they can afford it.
What was needed was testing, several in the group concluded.
“Here’s a disadvantaged minority community that needs our help,” Smith said.
That afternoon, there was an undercurrent of hope in the bland conference room. But soon after Visaggio, the volunteer, bowed out. The loose coalition fell apart. A few months later, in a climate of crimped budgets, Smith finagled some basic testing for six Charleston Park homes for bacteria and nitrates.
No smoking gun, but maybe there is a problem
Smith and Jacy Weems, an intern, sat near a bank of cubicles at the health department office in Fort Myers to discuss the Charleston Park results.
Back in August, five of six homes had tested positive for total coliform bacteria, generally harmless but maybe an indication of disease-causing bacteria. Elevated nitrates, which can be linked to fertilizers or septic tanks, found at some homes were within standards for what EPA considers safe. Smith took the lead. “It’s not like a big smoking gun it’s just like yeah, maybe there is a problem…I’d like to test every well for whole range of pesticides and fertilizers but I can’t. And even if I did I would need damning evidence there was a big problem.”
Nitrates were more than halfway toward maximum contaminant levels in two wells closer toward the orange groves, he noted. “Should it be monitored? I think it should be. This was a shot in time. Who knows if it’s above the max level at another time of the year?”
He said he hadn’t notified the residents of nitrate levels.
Then came this reporter’s question: if this was your drinking water wouldn’t you want to know? High levels of nitrates in drinking water can be dangerous, particularly to pregnant women and babies, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that ingested nitrate is probably carcinogenic to humans, though the EPA has not classified it as such, according to the CDC.
Smith worried that telling people would inject unwarranted fear into the community.
Another obstacle had emerged. They lost their liaison to Charleston Park. Alice Washington, the longtime Charleston Park resident coordinator, had died after having a heart attack at her desk in the community center. Skilled at getting things done, Washington linked residents, many of them distrustful of outsiders, to help.
“Alice pointed out she didn’t think they would want to pay a water bill. They can get bottled water with food stamps but they can’t pay a water bill. In the solutions department that put us back to square one,” said Smith, frustration pinching his brow.
One of the proposed solutions had been to look for grant money to connect residents to the existing water treatment plant in Charleston Park.
Smith’s conclusion: “I’d like to get more data and look at it more.”
We don’t really know what the contamination levels are
A fading poster and promise, “A Zip Code Should Not Determine a Child’s Future,” hanged inside the small community center at Charleston Park. Shelves contained outdated how-to books, the 2007 edition of "What Color is your Parachute?" for one.
Next on the agenda for that evening’s community association meeting: water.
Weems and Smith of the health department were there, along with six residents.
“Since we haven’t been here in so long, we want to make sure that water quality is still a big issue,” Weems said. “Do you think this is a very important problem we should be working on? Or maybe we should focus somewhere else?”
A pause lingered until the association’s then vice president, Melvin Lawson spoke up. There’s a lot of kids out here, he pointed out. “Everyone’s on bottled water. I think it would be nice to know what’s happening with what we’re drinking.”
Other board members nodded in agreement.
"So it’s coming from the pesticides that the orange groves are using?” Kunta Bolden asked. Most likely, it’s related to fertilizer or septic tanks, Smith said.
“You’d be surprised how much fertilizer is out there,” said Frank Neal, the association’s president at the time. “Makes you want to move out of the park.”
“I just want to say, my 8-year-old, when he bathes, he just itches like crazy.”
"Could the contamination have an effect on the kids?” asked Bolden, a father.
“The levels would have to be really high to have a serious effect,” Weems said. “Then again, we don’t really know what the contamination levels are, so we have to do more sampling.”
Bolden’s wife Christal Bolden added, “I just want to say, my 8-year-old, when he bathes, he just itches like crazy.”
The couple left the meeting concerned.
“We need to know,” said Kunta Bolden.
Outside, after the meeting, as residents socialized in driveways and a skinny cat darted below a car, Weems was resolute. “We definitely need to continue to focus on it.”
Smith was less sure. He leaned against the building, looked to the sky. “The problem is I don’t want to really look for problems if there are no solutions.”
Six months after this meeting, the health department fulfilled a plan to try to disinfect five wells that tested positive for total coliform bacteria more than a year earlier in 2015. After Weems left, the intern who replaced her called around until he found a firm to disinfect several wells for free. Some residents were irate about the delayed response.
In January 2017, the health department did additional testing; it sampled well water from four homes for total coliform and E. coli bacteria. All but one tested positive for total coliform. One tested positive for E. coli, which can cause a variety of illness. But the health department did not test for other contaminants or nitrates, what Smith said should be monitored in the drinking water from the wells.
Not our problem
Charleston Park can be a hard place to try to make a difference. It’s far flung from Fort Myers. Not many residents show up to community meetings. And at this one, government employees outnumbered residents.
Abdirahman Hussein, the intern who found the private firm to disinfect the wells, was there on behalf of the health department.
“I was told to hand over a video of how to decontaminate wells,” he said, before also placing copies of a two-page well disinfection guide on the table. On the top sheet, a water drop with a smiley face asked, “Is your well water well?”
“Y’all want to see it?” Melvin Lawson, then association president, asked the board.
After two years of hearing about the complexity of the problem, the final solution – a flash drive and papers with water drops with sad and happy faces – seemed futile. The papers even acknowledged as much, noting that well disinfection won’t resolve problems if wells aren’t structurally sound or contaminated by nitrates, septic tanks, or pesticides and other chemicals – possible scenarios for Charleston Park wells. What's more, wells that had been disinfected tested positive for bacteria again.
Plus, people would still need water treatment to drink it. And many people rent in Charleston Park. They don’t control the wells where they live.
This evening, the board did not watch the video because the members soon realized they did not have the technology to display it, so the board moved on to matters with easier solutions: an opening in the barrier around the playground, getting a summer camp next year.
Hussein said he was not authorized to speak to the press.
A Lee County spokesman said drinking water safety is the responsibility of the Florida Department of Health. Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokespeople said the drinking water program was delegated to the health department. The health department said they are not responsible for remediating private wells, that’s on the homeowners.
“Our current level of involvement is low. This is due to fact that they do not currently have a Resident Coordinator for us to liaison with, and due to the limited successes that we have had so far dealing with Charleston Park’s major issues and the lack of feasible solutions,” wrote Brian Bates, a health department administrator in an email.
Later this summer, LaShay Russ was hired as Charleston Park's new resident coordinator. She said the health department agreed to answer questions when the video is shown. Russ didn't know enough about the water issue to comment.
"I’m concerned with whatever the community is concerned about and of course if they raise any more concerns about it after we’ve put this meeting in place, well of course. Right now, they want to get their lives back to normal after this hurricane."
Charleston Park resident, Ella Christmas displays a scar left from a rash she had on and off for ten years. She believes it was caused by her well water. She believes race is a factor as to why the government has not found a solution to the water problems of Charleston Park. (Photo: Andrew
Is there really no solution?
It’s hard to believe in a nation with so many resources, the default solution is to ignore calls for clean water. International nonprofits have found solutions to drinking water problems with low-cost water filters, stand-alone water dispensers, or by micro-financing systems. Local water treatment provider Tim Byrne estimated he could provide filters, at cost, for about $1,000 a home. He pointed out many residents have no treatment at all.
“There’s nothing by law that says they go in there and help people, they just should,” said Byrne, CEO of Aqua Consultants, who took a lead in disinfecting wells for the health department after being contacted by Hussein.“Somebody has to be benevolent enough to say they care about those people. The thing that brought tears to my eyes when I was out there is how many kids I saw playing in that neighborhood because those little kids are doomed. Their growth is doomed. Their immunities are doomed if somebody doesn’t help them.”
The government has no legal obligation to help ensure clean drinking water from private wells, but there is enough of a moral obligation that federal grants are available to cover water infrastructure in rural poor communities.
As Lee County’s human services director from 1993 to 2009, Karen Hawes said she searched for solutions and even considered the prospect of relocating residents. “I had some real health concerns out there.” She still does. At one point, she invited health officials to speak about the potential dangers of bathing in contaminated water over a long period. But residents didn’t want to pay an assessment, even a small annual one, to hook into a plant, she said, and a grant wouldn’t cover all costs.
“The whole project would have to be underwritten by the rest of the community and how fair is that?" Hawes said. "That becomes the dilemma.”
The health department pointed out the long-term cost of connecting residents to an existing water treatment plant could burden residents, even if they agree to a water bill.
Spreadsheet: And, they’re right. Drinking bottled water, as most residents do, may be the cheapest solution. At that meeting more than two years ago, Boudreaux, with the county, suggested focusing on bringing regular public transportation to Charleston Park. That would at least give residents without a car a route to clean water.
Another idea: a water refill station, where residents could pay to refill water jugs. Lee County lured Hertz to relocate its world headquarters to Estero; it seems a small water dispenser in Charleston Park would be doable. Regular bottled water distribution through the community center could be another option.
Hawes suggested a partnership between the community center and nonprofits to organize water delivery to those most in need.
“The thing that brought tears to my eyes when I was out there is how many kids I saw playing in that neighborhood because those little kids are doomed.”
Matt Visaggio, the volunteer who pulled together agencies back in 2015, said he stepped aside to focus on his business Visaggio & Co. Any solution would have meant coordinating agencies, he said. “That was the part I wasn’t interested in taking on, they have to step outside what they normally do and work in a new way and that’s not generally what agencies do.”
The big-picture problem is poverty, said Visaggio. “If they’re working, they can conceivably pay for their own septic and well."
Health concerns persist: several people believe their water is making them sick. There’s been no inquiry into health issues or a potential cancer cluster mentioned at the 2015 meeting. As it stands, it seems, the agencies have turned away from trying to find a solution. In the absence of allies for clean water, the people of Charleston Park could be using contaminated water for decades to come.