Back in 2008, a former Boca Raton employee named Christine Ferrigan alerted government regulators about possible problems with the city's water department. Ferrigan claimed she was fired after raising concerns, and she filed a whistleblower suit.
But her complaint led to action. A case report done in 2010 by the Division of Environmental Public Health found possible violations on the part of the city, including that the city may have skimped on safeguards to keep wastewater out of drinking-water lines, allowed an illegal chemical injection system to be hooked into city water lines, reconnected wells to drinking-water lines without full testing, and failed to conduct complete tests for copper and lead.
The report concluded that the city could be on the hook for $20,870 to $54,070 in penalties but implied that the city had done an "apparent 'Clearance of the Crime Scene'" before the Division even had a chance to investigate. "This type of behavior is unacceptable, is worse than the actual violations, and needs to be corrected," the report read. "The city's concern that these compliance issues will undermine public confidence in the water system cannot override their responsibilities to be truthful."
Since the allegation first hit, Boca Raton has maintained that the city's drinking water is safe and that the supposed violations stem from missed deadlines and misunderstandings. By late March of this year, both parties came to a settlement. Boca agreed to "operate its utility system in conformance with Applicable Law" but didn't admit to any guilt. Instead of $50,000, the city will pay just $2,500 in costs and expenses.
"We're pleased that it went that way," says Boca's assistant city manager, Mike Woika.
Palm Beach County Health Department spokesperson Tim O'Connor said he was satisfied. "We can now keep an eye on and ensure what they agreed to and ensure that the community is safe." Asked about the titanic gulf between the 2010 suggested penalties and the final settlement number, O'Connor explains that any penalty would have been used to fund clean-up work on the violations. "They had already spent a lot of money and made those improvements," he says. "Obviously our legal office was satisfied that the corrections were made."
But the happy ending doesn't sit well with Jerry Phillips, director of Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The settlement, he says, takes all the teeth out of enforcement. "There's no real incentive for the permitee not to cause the pollution to begin with," he says. "It does not help to protect the environment for anyone who violates the permit not to have to suffer any consequences."
Ferrigan's wrongful termination lawsuit is still pending.