Boca Raton Water Contamination Triggers Health Sanctions
One Whistleblower Restored as Extensive Probe of City Utility Operations Expands
Washington, DC — The Palm Beach County Department of Health has instituted formal enforcement proceedings against the City of Boca Raton for a raft of drinking water violations, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). One of the city utility workers who reported the problems was restored to her job by a review board while the other worker will take her appeal to state court.
The April 24, 2009 “Warning Letter” from the Palm Beach County Health Department concludes that the workers’ complaints of widespread problems in the city’s water distribution system had been verified. The letter details systemic weaknesses in city procedures for protecting drinking water, including:
- Inadequate cross-contamination safeguards to prevent waste water from entering drinking water lines. The Health Department found the city had been aware of problems since February 2006;
- Dangerously low water pressure that could allow backflow of contaminated water into drinking water distribution. The city blamed numerous low readings on the location of the sensors but city officials had selected the sensor locations; and
- Serious doubts about the accuracy of city fecal coliform readings. The Health Department ordered the city to surrender lab reports, chain-of-custody logs and “all communications related to the invalidation of any bacteriological samples…”
The letter ended with a telling request “that City staff allow the Health Department to review the data and not attempt to interfere or influence the outcome of the investigation”. The Health Department began these formal proceedings after Boca Raton officials refused to sign a consent order admitting violations.
“Something is rotten in Boca Raton,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “These problems were widely known inside the utilities department but only two public servants had the courage to step up.”
The South Florida city fired two of its key water Quality Control staff members just before last Christmas after it learned that they had reported violations to authorities. Angela Romero, an inspector, was restored to her position by a civil service review board. Christine Ferrigan, who had served as Utility Coordinator for 23 years, was not restored and will take her whistleblower claim to state court.
After it finishes the next stage of its review, the Health Department could impose fines or even order the closure of the city water utility, shifting drinking water distribution to Palm Beach County. In addition, if it confirms falsification or improper alteration of laboratory reports or other official records, the Health Department could refer criminal charges against responsible officials to state prosecutors.