Pam DiMarzio's three boys know the drill – when mommy sticks strips of blue painter's tape over the bathroom faucets, the kitchen sink, the fridge and the shower, it means one thing: Don't touch the water.
Those are the precautions DiMarzio has learned to take since moving in 2005 to the Wedgefield neighborhood, a lonesome community in east Orange County about 30 minutes from downtown Orlando. She had just given birth to her first son when she got a notice from the former private utility that provided water to more than a thousand local residents that a water test had come back positive for coliform bacteria – also known as fecal bacteria. DiMarzio rushed to get bottled water and started getting cases of Zephyrhills water delivered to her door. For a while, she even used a filter, but now, the only water she and her three children drink comes from Publix, which has cost her up to $200 a month.
"No one here drinks this water," she says. "Nobody."
DiMarzio and other residents have been fighting for years now against a newer water provider, Pluris Wedgefield Inc., a private, Dallas-based company that has provided water to the neighborhood since 2009. Neighbors say the water can be cloudy and at times comes out with a brown tint. Sometimes it tastes like metal. People complain it has a foul smell and reeks of chlorine.
After scores of complaints, Orange County is considering taking over the private utility – though Pluris has indicated it doesn't intend to sell. In fact, some local residents are infuriated after learning the private company is actually trying to charge them more for water they won't drink. In late July, Pluris filed documents with the Florida Public Service Commission indicating it would seek an almost 21 percent rate hike in order to recover the costs associated with installing new water meters. The new rate would charge customers who use up to 5,000 gallons a month $9.01 per 1,000 gallons of water, an increase from the $7.86 currently paid. By contrast, Orange County Utilities' 2016 rates charge customers who use up to 3,000 gallons a month $1.10 per 1,000 gallons of water. Orlando Weekly reached out to Joe Kuhns, the company's Lakeland-based regional manager, for a comment but did not receive a response by press time.
Natalie Mariko, another resident, says she's angry she'll have to pay more for water she won't even let her pets drink.
"This rate increase is covering Pluris' mistake," she says. "Why should we pay for that? It's not our fault that you don't know how to run your plant."
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says that currently, Wedgefield's water does not pose an immediate health risk, and residents don't need to find an alternate source of water unless that's their personal preference. Dave Herbster, a spokesperson for the DEP, says the state already stepped in after 2016 water tests done by Orange County on 18 Wedgefield homes found elevated levels of trihalomethanes, or TTHMs, and several of haloacetic acids. Two homes, including DiMarzio's, also tested positive for bacteria in the tap water. Herbster says TTHMs and haloacetic acids are byproducts created after using chlorine to disinfect the water pumped from the Floridan aquifer. Cancer research studies and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have suggested there may be a potential link to liver, kidney or central nervous system problems and increased risk of cancer from long-term exposure to a certain amount of TTHMs. News 13 reports the state DEP ultimately fined Pluris more than $1,200 for low chlorine residual levels.
Herbster says the DEP has worked with Pluris on a new pilot program to treat the water with chlorine dioxide as a disinfectant. Herbster says the program started last March and the results, so far, have been promising. The DEP is working with Pluris on the process to permanently make chlorine dioxide the disinfectant for Wedgefield's water.
"When we began getting test results that showed if they continued with what they were doing there would be a potential violation of federal safe drinking water standards, we moved on it," Herbster says. "They moved on it. We had to change what we're doing here. The most important thing we can provide is accountability to make sure they have safe drinking water, and we think we're moving in the direction of that. We share an interest with residents for safe drinking water, so we want to work with them and work with the utility to make sure that's what they get."
Still, some residents have continued to find problems with the water – now it's bleaching their clothes. Whether Pluris has fixed the issue or not, it clear from speaking to neighbors that the problem isn't only what's in the water – it's also a loss of trust between people and a company that provides them a service necessary for survival.
DiMarzio says more than 800 residents have already signed a letter to get Orange County to start negotiations to take over the private utility. Todd Swingle, deputy director of Orange County Utilities, says Wedgefield residents need almost 1,200 signatures from the estimated 1,800 current Pluris customers for the county to investigate what it would take to improve and operate the current facilities and evaluate Pluris' willingness to sell.
Swingle also says at this point, the county does not foresee extending its utility lines out to Wedgefield because of costs. The non-binding signatures from residents would be the first of many steps to a long process.
Orange County District 5 Commissioner Emily Bonilla, who represents the area, says she's looking into another option of the county taking over jurisdiction of the utility from the state, but those talks are very preliminary.