By Jane Smith
Delray Beach will immediately notify affected customers of any reclaimed water issues following a critical review from the county Office of Inspector General.
Also as a result of the report, released May 6, the city will educate customers about what reclaimed water is and its allowed use being only for lawn irrigation.
In addition, the Utilities Department started documenting all customer complaints or inquiries and tracking them in the city’s computerized maintenance management system. Utilities staff will be trained in the proper documentation and inspection reports required by the regulating agencies over reclaimed water.
Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez defended the city from the inspector general's broad criticism of upper management and elected officials knowing about illnesses stemming from reclaimed water on the barrier island in December 2018.
While a since-retired water and sewer manager might have known about the illnesses, there is no evidence that he told the utilities director, Alvarez wrote in a response included in the OIG report.
The Office of Inspector General became involved last August at the request of the Palm Beach County office of the Florida Department of Health. Health officials were "concerned that city staff and/or elected officials concealed and/or misrepresented their knowledge," according to the OIG report.
The Health Department began investigating the Delray Beach reclaimed water system in January 2020 but could only issue civil fines. The OIG can forward its results to the State Attorney’s Office for criminal prosecution.
The OIG investigated what the city staff knew about the illnesses and whether they were reported to the department as required. "During our investigation, (the OIG) was unable to determine whether the reported illness was actually caused by the citys drinking water," according to the report.
But an unnamed city staffer identified in the report as a whistleblower submitted a lengthy rebuttal to the OIG findings.
The staffer talks about a March 2019 meeting convened to discuss illnesses from the crossed connection found in December 2018. A crossed connection occurs when reclaimed water pipes are mistakenly connected to ones for drinking water. Reclaimed water is highly treated wastewater suitable only for lawn irrigation.
At the meeting various department heads, a former assistant city manager and the project consultants representative determined no more action was needed without medical or hospital records connecting the illnesses to the reclaimed water, according to Public Utility Management Services Inc., a firm the city hired in 2020 to independently review the system.
However, the whistleblower's rebuttal said, "It was not the city's job to determine this but to report it (to the Health Department)."
The whistleblower also alleges the city destroyed paper call logbooks from late 2018. A barrier island resident called to say his family became ill and he thought it was from drinking tap water. The operator on duty notified the then-water and sewer manager who said he would handle it, according to the whistleblower.
When The Coastal Star made a records request for the logs, Utilities Department leaders asked the whistleblower for a copy of them on Nov. 26 because "the documents were thrown out-- this was openly discussed," the rebuttal said. The city staffer told them they were required to report the lost records and later turned over a copy on Nov. 30.