Boca Raton Water Contamination Triggers Health Sanctions

For Immediate Release

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Luke Eshleman (202) 265-7337

Boca Raton Water Contamination Triggers Health Sanctions

One Whistleblower Restored as Extensive Probe of City Utility Operations Expands

WASHINGTON - 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.

Read the Palm Beach Health Department letter

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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