Delray Beach water inspector claims city fired her for reporting contamination

DELRAY BEACH — A former Delray Beach water inspector filed suit against the city Monday, claiming she was fired for reporting problems with the city’s long-troubled program for providing safe drinking water.

Christine Ferrigan said she was told her job was eliminated and then escorted from her office Jan. 26, after months of harassment for providing information to state and county officials about contamination in the city’s water supplies. A month later, her son was fired from his job in the city’s fleet maintenance division.

Her lawsuit, filed with the federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration, says city officials engaged in a “pattern of continuous and repeated hostility and have perpetrated adverse employment actions against Ms. Ferrigan because of her federally protected whistleblowing.”

Ferrigan said her main concern was that employees remained fearful of reporting problems, making it impossible to trust the safety of the city’s water.

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“When somebody turns on the faucet in their kitchen, they shouldn’t have to ask, is this water safe?” she said. “It already happened once. It could happen again.”

The lawsuit was filed by lawyers with Mehri & Skalet, a Washington, D.C. firm that represents whistleblowers. The suit raises further questions about the city’s drinking-water program, where mismanagement and a coverup of contamination issues had led the Florida Department of Health last year to fine the city $1 million.

“It’s clear to me they’ll do whatever they have to do to get the regulatory agencies off their back and try to maintain their reputation,” Ferrigan said in an interview. “Employees are so fearful of saying anything for fear of retaliation that they will go along with the program.”

Hassan Hadjimiry, the city’s Utilities Director, referred questions about the lawsuit to city spokeswoman Gina Carter. She did not respond to a call or email.

The main contamination issue concerned reclaimed water, which is partially treated wastewater that’s used to water lawns and other irrigation. This water, which is not safe for human consumption, was getting into the drinking water of some homes through what are called cross-connections, places where reclaimed water was able to enter the drinking-water system.

In November 2018, city residents reported water that was “smelly, yellow with algae, and sandy,” with some saying they and their pets were getting sick, according to the complaint. The city reported the issue to the state Department of Health but failed to reported the illnesses.

The Health Department began an investigation, joined later by the Palm Beach County Inspector General. The state investigation would ultimately lead to the $1 million fine, with the health department criticizing the city for failing to report the illnesses.

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Ferrigan also reported that wastewater was contaminated with a class of pollutants known as PFAS, which can be harmful to human health if they get into drinking water.

Ferrigan, who had been cooperating with the investigation, was told by supervisors to stop talking with the Inspector General’s office, according to her complaint. During this period, she was passed over for promotion and received an unusually low job evaluation of 3.31 out of 5.

“I was reprimanded, I was denied promotions and kept from meetings,” she said. “Even in management meetings, some of the top people, if I asked a question their tone would be totally different with me than with everyone else.”

Several employees told her they were afraid to report continuing problems with reclaimed water entering drinking water for fear of retaliation, the complaint said.

“The unlawful retaliation perpetrated by the City and its management was undertaken primarily to prevent Ms. Ferrigan and other employees from disclosing information that would establish violations of state and federal drinking water and wastewater laws and regulations, and permits, including the City’s Domestic Wastewater Facility Permit.,” the lawsuit stated. “The effort to conceal such violations is ongoing.”

Ferrigan said employees told her the city’s utilities director, Hadjimiry, had told them to remove information about backflows from the city’s database. Employees also said supervisors were falsifying and concealing information on water treatment.

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She filed a harassment complaint with the city’s human resources department, and a few days later, was fired.

“The morning that I came in, the director of utilities came into my office and said that I had a meeting with the assistant HR director,” she said. “ So they brought me into another room. They told me that my position was eliminated. I asked does that mean I’m terminated? And they said yes.”

“They said, do you have any questions. I said no. And they said we have to escort you out, which they did. They took my badge and that was it.”

Jerry Phillips, southeast director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents government workers, said the city’s water problems were so systemic that the department needed a thorough house-cleaning.

“They need to replace senior management,” he said. “That would be a start. If you look at the consent order with the Department of Health, it points to a lot of problems with inaccurate records, falsified records, withholding documents. That points to a very serious failure to abide by the environmental laws.”

David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@sunsentinel.com and 954-356-4535. Follow him on Twitter @DavidFleshler.

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