Drinking water safe, manager says after
By Jane Smith
Delray Beach failed to alert state health officials that about a dozen barrier island residents and their pets were sickened by drinking contaminated water after the latest segment of the reclaimed-water system began operating in late 2018, state Department of Health records show.
The reclaimed-water lines provide partly treated wastewater meant solely for lawn watering.
The last section of the system started running in October 2018, and Christine Ferrigan, an industrial pretreatment inspector in the city Utilities Department, found it was not installed or monitored properly by outside contractors, according to her notes released by the state Health Department under Florida’s public records law.
That cross-contaminated an unknown number of drinking water lines between October and December 2018 and potentially exposed additional residents in some of the 613 coastal households hooked up to the system to hepatitis A, Giardia, fecal coliform and other contaminants, according to Ferrigan’s notes. The notes say the reclaimed-water program was flawed from the start in 2005.
Yet the Health Department was not alerted to the situation until Jan. 2, 2020, when Leslie Campbell, who lives on South Ocean Boulevard, called “to complain she was not adequately notified of the cross-connection issue in her neighborhood. (The) cross-connection between drinking water and reclaimed-water lines occurred in late 2018,” according to the complaint investigation record. Campbell, who told Health Department officials to contact Ferrigan for details, declined to explain why she waited so long to complain.
Although Ferrigan’s notes included details on families and pets getting sick in the area from Casuarina Road south to Linton Boulevard in late 2018, a report filed by then-Utilities Director Marjorie Craig to the Health Department on Dec. 19, 2018, reported the cross-connection problem but also stated “no reports of sickness or illness have been received.”
Reacting to the cross connection, a boil-water order was issued.
City officials say water safe to drink
City officials now stress that the cross-contamination has been eliminated and that city water remains safe for drinking, cooking and showering.
Still, back in 2018, the city “created a public health threat because of the way they contracted the service and didn’t monitor the work,” said Ned Wehler, a barrier island resident.
Mayor Shelly Petrolia said it’s concerning that she is just hearing about this problem now. “It’s important when a public health threat occurs that the city own up to it,” she said.
As a result of Campbell’s complaint — backed up with Ferrigan’s notes — the Health Department asked Delray Beach to issue a citywide boil-water order on Feb. 4. The order would last until the city had checked all locations served by both drinking and reclaimed water. The Health Department also wanted bacterial tests done after the connections were checked.
New City Manager George Gretsas, who started on Jan. 6, persuaded the department not to follow through on such a drastic action as a boil-water order.
The city would turn off its reclaimed-water system citywide, he wrote in a Feb. 4 letter to Rafael Reyes, the environmental director at the county division of the Health Department.
“The city will review and inspect all locations served by potable and reclaimed water to ensure proper backflow prevention is present. The city will inspect for cross- connections and notify the Department of Health immediately for the presence of any cross-connections. Lastly, bacteriological water samples will be collected and tested,” Gretsas’ letter said.
A week later he wrote to Reyes saying that the tap water is not contaminated. Gretsas detailed how every location that receives both drinking water and reclaimed water from Delray Beach was inspected. City staffers were deployed and outside contractors were hired.
“All of the efforts undertaken by the city demonstrate that the city took your concerns seriously but, more importantly, that no cross-connections were found,” Gretsas wrote.
Although no cross- connections were found, city staff discovered that 200 to 300 reclaimed-water customers citywide did not have backflow preventers to stop the reclaimed irrigation water from potentially mixing with the drinking water supply, Gretsas said March 2. The devices have been installed.
Gretsas stressed that the lack of a backflow preventer doesn’t necessarily mean that reclaimed water was mixing with the drinking water. The devices act as a safety valve when there are fluctuations in water pressure.
The city of Boca Raton sent Delray Beach 40 backflow preventers in late February, according to Chris Helfrich, Boca Raton’s utility services director. He said it is not unusual for cities to ask for parts and then swap them back when their orders come in.
Gretsas also said that the city has 30 to 40 water lines to check for backflow preventers. The pipes may be located under landscaping, driveways or sidewalks, Gretsas said.
He expected the work to be finished by March 7 and stressed again that the tap water is safe to drink.
“The reclaimed water won’t be turned on until the DOH is satisfied that each reclaimed water location was inspected and missing backflow preventers were added citywide,” Gretsas said.
First notice was door hanger
The closest thing to a public warning from the city came on door hangers left on the 613 barrier island doorsteps dated Feb. 4 and Feb. 14, which stated that city workers are performing inspections of the reclaimed-water system “at the behest of the Department of Health.” The notes told residents to call Deputy Director of Utilities Victor Majtenyi with any questions. He could not be reached for comment for this story.
“The city should have been more forthcoming in the explanation of why they shut off the reclaimed water on the barrier island and were checking all connections,” said Bill Petry, a barrier island resident who sits on the board of the Beach Property Owners Association.
Fire Chief Neal de Jesus, who was the interim city manager until Gretsas started on Jan. 6, was assigned to monitor the inspections.
De Jesus sent an email to Reyes on Feb. 5 saying the city shut down its reclaimed-water system at 7:15 p.m. Feb. 4.
More than 75 city employees were brought in at 7 a.m. Feb. 5 to distribute door hangers to reclaimed-water users. As of 8:54 a.m., the task was completed, according to de Jesus’ email.
Delray Beach has hired contract employees to work alongside city employees to inspect every connection of its reclaimed-water system.
“The city takes all matters related to the health, safety and welfare of those we serve seriously,” de Jesus wrote.
Improper hookups found
In 2018, Ferrigan, the city utility inspector who started with Delray Beach in June 2017, created documents needed for the reclaimed-water program, including inspection forms, brochures and a database of active and inactive users. They were approved by her immediate manager, Majtenyi, and Craig, who resigned for other reasons in April 2019.
In the summer of 2018, Ferrigan “found several violations immediately. Reclaimed water was connected to outside showers, hose bibs, vegetable gardens.” Those connections are not allowed since they could compromise the health of residents and their pets through close contact with the contaminated water.
Then in September 2018 she was assigned to check the cross- connections in the southern half of the barrier island, from Casuarina to Linton. It was the latest area where the city was installing reclaimed-water lines.
Her notes said some of the drinking-water lines mistakenly were connected to the reclaimed-water lines. “The blend ratio might have started out at 80% potable and 20% reclaim, but as time went on the blend ratio was probably more of an equal part. … This would explain why the residents complained more as time went on.”
To Ferrigan, this meant that between Oct. 4, 2018, when the reclaimed-water lines were activated, to Dec. 6, 2018, when the cross-contamination was discovered and repaired, “the people on the barrier island were exposed to contaminated water and did not know this and were never told it and were never told what happened.”
The issue was still festering in May 2019.
Ferrigan wanted the utilities staff to correct the report to the Health Department about reported illnesses and inform the residents about the contaminated drinking water that had occurred in late 2018.
But she said she was never invited to meetings on the problems because she was not a manager.
Ferrigan gave her notes in May 2019 to Assistant City Manager Caryn Gardner-Young, who was the acting utilities director.
Gardner-Young left the city for other reasons in September 2019.
“I have many years of experience,” Ferrigan wrote on May 7, 2019. “I was a whistleblower and state witness against my former employer for these similar situations and that was the city of Boca Raton.”
Ferrigan, a 23-year utility department employee with Boca Raton, was fired from that city in December 2008.
She had alerted state regulators about city water quality issues that she claimed put the health of 128,000 residents at risk. Her whistle-blower lawsuit was settled in May 2014 on the day before her trial was to start.
She received $322,500, her attorneys received $215,000 and Boca Raton was forced to pay its own litigation costs of about $390,000, according to The Palm Beach Post archives. In the settlement, Boca Raton denied wrongdoing.
The next step for Delray Beach will be to hire a forensics firm to delve into how the reclaimed-water system was installed in the early years and how to prevent mistakes from happening in the future, Gretsas said. He also hopes the forensics firm will explore the discrepancies between Ferrigan’s notes and those of her supervisors.
“We spent a lot of the taxpayers’ money on city staff time and hiring contractors,” Gretsas said. “We want to find the cause before we point fingers.”
Meanwhile, the county division of the state Health Department is investigating.
“If the city of Delray Beach is found to have failed to notify the DOH as required, then that would be a violation,” Alex Shaw, county Health Department spokesman, said in a Feb. 28 email. He could not say what the penalty might be. “Because there are so many variables involved, we cannot provide a specific penalty until the investigation is complete.”
When asked what the city plans to do to allay any concerns about the safety of the tap water, Petrolia said, “I think the testing and the lengthy process to check each location with reclaimed water will ensure the water is safe to drink going forward.”
Rich Pollack and Michelle Quigley contributed to this story.