Contact 5 Investigators uncover possible growing threat to Florida drinking water

State Inspector: 'Contamination is going to rise'

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - When you turn on your faucet  you expect clean water.  But there's a growing threat for the drinking water of tens of thousands of people in South Florida.

It's a problem that's often out of sight, out of mind.  But the Contact 5 Investigators have spent the past few months bringing it to the surface.

Anna Elkins and her family cook with their water, water the lawn with it, even brush their teeth with it.

"It kind of has a metal smell to it," said Anna as she turned on her faucet.

But she had no idea an underground gas spill at a nearby business back in 2010 could have threatened the quality of her well water.

"I'm shocked because I think I need to know, I think it's my right to know," said Elkins.

And she's not alone.  Florida has more fuel cleanup sites than any other state in the country.

State records show there are more than 1,200 sites in our viewing area alone.

Click here to a view a map of all of sites in Florida.

"The state just doesn't have the funding to clean all of them up at the same time," said Dave Gibson who is in charge of most of the cleanup sites in our area.

So the state moved more than 250 cases, including the site near Anna's Lake Park home, to the top of the cleanup list because the fuel spilled too close to the drinking water supply.

Click here to view a map of the priority clean-up sites in Florida.

"The ones that are the most imminent threat," said Gibson.

Just because a spill doesn't happen on your property doesn't mean you can't be affected.  The contamination can spread underground.  That's why the state also tests the public and private wells in a half mile radius around the sites.

And you probably don't know you're being charged at the pump for the state to spot the leaks and to help clean them up.  The Contact 5 Investigators took a closer look at the numbers.  Every time you fill up you're paying an extra four cents a gallon for the program.  That's about a dollar every time you fill up.  That state collects close to $200 million from the tax every year.

"So what am I paying for?" asked Anna Elkins.

The Contact 5 Investigators uncovered what you're paying for:  Workers to inspect the underground tanks to spot leaks before they threaten your water.

But over the past five years, 45 inspectors and 50 cleanup workers have been cut.

Remember, the state already has more contaminated sites than any other state.

Plus, the state used to inspect every tank once year.  Now, they're inspecting most tanks once every two years.

Click here to see how Florida compares to other states when it comes to number of spills, inspectors and more.

"With fewer inspectors, does that mean contamination could go unnoticed in our area?" asked Contact 5 Investigator Dan Krauth to Patrick Wille, head of inspections in Palm Beach County.

"There's a potential, yes, that spills could go longer without being detected," said Wille.

The longer it takes to spot a spill, the bigger the treat. 

"We could be there for decades," said Gibson.  "The longer it sits the harder it is to cleanup," he said.

State lawmakers set up the system and the gas fund back in the 1980s.  The Contact 5 Investigators went to Tallahassee to find out where your money's going today.

"We're required to face a budget cut and face the repercussions of that," said Robert Brown, the state's program director.

Brown said he had no choice but to cut staff after lawmakers cut his budget.

"We are doing more inspections with less staff so we're trying to maintain the same level with less," said Brown.

In just the last year alone eight million dollars of your gas tax money was taken from the program and used to help balance the state's dwindling budget.

As for Anna, the State installed a well filter after the spill and never tested again.  They believe the gasoline hasn't spread.

When asked why everyone's well isn't tested on a regular basis, Gibson said, "If there were resources available to do that, I would say more power to you, we don't have the resources to do that."

The Contact 5 Investigators worked with a lab to have Anna's water tested for her.  The results show no harmful chemicals were found in her water. 

The state has hooked some residents up to city water before after finding chemicals in the well water.

Investigative Producer Lynn Walsh contributed to this story.

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