DELRAY BEACH — The city of Delray Beach hasn’t been able to completely stop the persistent drip of bad news stemming from its water issues, and Monday brought more.
Christine Ferrigan, a former Public Utilities Department employee, filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city, including City Manager Terrence Plus and Director of Public Services Hassan Hadjimiry.
Ferrigan’s costume comes just two months after she filed a whistleblower complaint against the city, alleging that she was fired for bringing water treatment issues to the state’s attention when her officials failed to address her concerns.
In Monday’s filing, Ferrigan claims she was fired from her position as industrial pretreatment inspector for Delray Beach after alerting the Florida Department of Health and Palm Beach County Inspector General’s Office that partially treated sewage was contaminating residents’ drinking water and making them sick.
“First of all, it was wrong what they did to me. It’s against the law,” Ferrigan said. “Secondly, no one should be silenced for speaking out, nor be attacked or fired, especially when it comes to something as important as water quality issues, health and public safety.”
Delray Beach paid more than $1 million, in addition to a $1 million fine, to fix long-standing water treatment issues. It also replaced a city manager and a utility department manager, and built a new water treatment plant.
“Christine Ferrigan was trying to prevent a Delray Beach version of the Flint water crisis,” Ezra Bronstein, an attorney representing Ferrigan, said in a prepared statement. “The city’s decision to silence her rather than address water issues puts the public at risk and discourages other city employees from talking about public health issues.”
In his whistleblower lawsuit, Ferrigan seeks back wages, attorneys’ fees, expenses and compensatory damages. She is also looking for a promotion she was denied or a comparable position. And she wants her son – who she says was fired from his city job in retaliation against her – reinstated with back pay and benefits.
“Whistleblowers are the most effective way to keep government honest,” Ferrigan said. “They expose corruption and prevent things from happening.”
The city says Ferrigan’s position was eliminated as part of a municipal reorganization.
In 2008, Ferrigan filed a similar lawsuit against the city of Boca Raton, where she had been a utility worker for 23 years.
In that case, Ferrigan claimed she was fired because she reported drinking water safety violations to state regulators after city officials ignored her concerns. The city attorney said Ferrigan was fired for job performance reasons.
A settlement was eventually reached. Ferrigan received $322,500. Boca Raton has admitted no wrongdoing.
Delray Beach has a long history of water issues
“The City of Delray Beach’s drinking water meets all health standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Health,” the city’s water services department said. to place said. “Our drinking water is tested daily. The results are submitted to the Florida Department of Health.”
Ferrigan was hired by Delray Beach in 2017 as an industrial pretreatment inspector. In November 2018, the city’s utilities department began fielding phone calls from residents complaining of smelly and discolored drinking water. Some said they or their pets got sick, Ferrigan says.
Ferrigan told Utilities Department officials that the water she saw during her inspections looked like reclaimed water — partially treated sewage meant for watering lawns, not drinking, suggesting possible backflow problems in the distribution system.
Ferrigan asked management for a list of backflow devices that had been installed by the city, but his request was ignored, according to his lawsuit. Some 581 homes had backflow preventers installed incorrectly or not at all.
In December 2018, Ferrigan says she was tasked with beginning inspections of interconnects, starting with an oceanfront mansion on South Ocean Boulevard owned by Russell Weiner, the billionaire founder of the Rockstar energy drink. She discovered a cross-contamination problem and reported it, she says.
Its officials disclosed the cross-connection issue to the Florida Department of Health, but not the fact that some residents had recently reported falling ill, according to Ferrigan’s lawsuit. Ferrigan had been instructed by her superiors not to cooperate with the state health department or the Palm Beach County Inspector General’s office, she alleges.
She was eventually interviewed by both agencies. She has also helped a national non-profit environmental organization.
Jasmine Fernández is a journalist and covers Delray Beach and Boca Raton at the Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jasminefernandz. Help support our work. Subscribe today.