By Rich Pollack
For months, town residents who read an email from the Committee to Save Highland Beach had to wonder if tap water was safe to drink — or even bathe in.
Now, town officials, the state Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are confirming that Highland Beach’s water not only meets safety standards but far exceeds them.
Reports filed with the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County show lead in the water from 20 Highland Beach locations on Sept. 24 ranged between an undetectable amount of lead to 0.0083 milligrams of lead per liter. The EPA-allowed maximum guideline is 0.015.
The same report showed copper in tap water ranged from 0.0075 milligrams per liter to 0.28 milligrams depending on the location. The acceptable level is 1 milligram per liter.
The highest levels of lead and copper in Highland Beach’s water are lower than the maximum levels in most surrounding communities, in large part because the water is treated in a reverse osmosis plant that removes most elements and requires some elements to be added.
“There are no problems with our award-winning water,” Town Manager Marshall Labadie said.
Labadie and town staff have been scrambling for weeks to correct information put out in the Committee to Save Highland Beach email blasts.
“We were asked to solve a problem that never existed,” Labadie said.
The issue came to the forefront after John Ross, a frequent critic of the Town Commission and the author of the Committee to Save Highland Beach email blast, came back from up north and asked on a blog if others thought the water tasted funny.
“One person wrote in with the link to an EPA website,” said Ross, who then shared the information with those on his email list.
That site, the EPA Enforcement and Compliance History website, shows that Highland Beach had 12 consecutive quarters of water quality violations.
The website also showed that in 2017, the lead levels in Highland Beach’s water were at 0.092 milligrams per liter, more than six times the acceptable level of 0.015.
Ross urged residents not to drink the water, posting those results in his email blasts and in several others.
One email blast was signed off with “Keep Drinking Bottled Water.”
The town countered with an email blast a short time later of its own assuring residents the water is fine.
“Please know that there are no concerns with the quality of the water,” the email from Labadie said. “There are no violations or enforcement actions pending and it is absolutely safe to drink our water.”
After lots of digging, town officials were able to get to the bottom of the misleading information.
Results from the town water tests are passed on to the state Department of Health, which then provides the information to the EPA. In 2004, a report was never filed and that led to a violation. Apparently unaware of the violation, no one ever followed up to file a report.
As for the high count of lead in one of the readings on the website, Labadie said that was a transcription error.
“They put the copper results in the lead category,” he said.
The town has since contacted the EPA, and a red flag has been placed on the site explaining the error. The information will be corrected when the site is updated in January.
Ross has faced criticism from town leaders for putting out information that wasn’t accurate.
“To make people anxious about our water is like saying the Martians are coming,” Mayor Rhoda Zelniker said. “I drank our water for 19 years and I’m in good health.”
But Ross defends putting the information out. He says that data on a public website are available to anyone and that misinformation can have a negative effect on everything from reputation to health insurance rates.
Ross believes town officials should know what data about the town are available to the public and make sure the data are accurate.
“If not, someone is going to beat them to it, and in this case, they did,” he said. “If you’re being regulated, it’s important to know what information about you is being put out there.”