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State health department orders Delray Beach to test city water for level of 'forever' chemicals

The Palm Beach Post logo The Palm Beach Post 12/1/2020 Mike Diamond, Special to The Palm Beach Post
a close up of a sign: A painter from Utility Service Co. Inc. of Perry, Ga. puts the finishing touches on a 16 foot tall All-America City logo on the east side of the Delray Beach water tower. © Bob Shanley, The Palm Beach Post A painter from Utility Service Co. Inc. of Perry, Ga. puts the finishing touches on a 16 foot tall All-America City logo on the east side of the Delray Beach water tower.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrected reported the estimated cost of testing the city's 30 wells. The story has been corrected.

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DELRAY BEACH — The state Department of Health has ordered the city of Delray Beach to test its drinking water throughout next year to detect the level of cancer-causing "forever" chemicals known as PFAs.

It must conduct tests at all of its 30 wells on a quarterly basis, an expense that is expected to cost about $26,000. The DOH letter, dated Nov. 23, said state law required such testing to be done “if the presence of a contaminant is determined to constitute an unreasonable risk to health.”  

City spokeswoman Gina Carter said the language used by the state DOH in its letter to the city was invoked as part of the administrative code the state relied upon to require the quarterly testing.

It does not mean that there is a contaminant in the drinking water that poses a health risk to residents, Carter said.

Repeated efforts to have DOH explain what it meant were unsuccessful.

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Carter said the city Utilities Department agreed to do the testing to “address concerns regarding PFAs.” She noted that no other city in the region has committed to performing such tests on a regular timetable.

“These actions are warranted in order to set the record straight and confirm that Delray Beach’s drinking water meets/exceeds all the standards set by the FDOH, FDEP and the EPA,” Carter said in an email.

The city must submit its test results to DOH within seven days “for further guidance.” And, at the request of the city, DOH “staff will accompany city officials during the first sample collection.”

PFAs (perfluoroalkoxy alkanes) are called "forever" chemicals because they do not break down in nature. They are widely used in hundreds of products ranging from nonstick pans to firefighting foam. In addition to causing cancer, they also cause motor disorders in children, obesity and liver and thyroid diseases.

The DOH order would appear to raise issues with the city’s claim that its drinking water is perfectly safe. The city’s utilities director, Hassan Hadjimiry, assured city commissioners at a recent meeting that a city test done in August showed there was nothing to worry about and that the level of 49 parts per trillion is well under the federal EPA guidance of 70.

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There is widespread disagreement as to what an acceptable PFA level should be. Florida has not set a level, relying instead on the EPA's guidance, which has been criticized by environmentalists and members of Congress for allowing too high a concentration of the chemicals. 

An environmental watchdog group, Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, has pointed out that the test results for August were high enough that some states would have ordered such levels to be lowered. PEER obtained the August results after filing a public-records request, then publicized them. 

PEER spokesman Jerry Phillips noted that Delray Beach appears to be satisfied with its reading of 49. It should not be, he added, but acknowledged that drinking water throughout South Florida probably falls into a similar range. 

Delray Beach sampled its water again Oct. 29. The reading fell from 49 to 0.43, a figure that Phillips called remarkable.

“You just don’t see that kind of a reduction and it probably resulted in the state questioning the validity of the test,” he noted, adding, it could very well be why the state wants the testing to occur throughout next year on a quarterly basis. “It is unusual that the state made such a request.”

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Meanwhile, Rob Long, a member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Board, is under pressure to retract an email he sent to his followers criticizing the city’s “appalling response” to the presence of "forever" chemicals. He cited the PEER press release, which suggested that residents either drink bottled water or make sure they filter their water before drinking it.

The suggestion infuriated City Commission members. They called on Long to retract what he said if he wanted to continue serving on the Planning and Zoning Board. The issue of whether Long stays or goes is expected to be addressed at a City Commission meeting on Tuesday.

Long told The Palm Beach Post on Wednesday that the DOH letter shows that the presence of PFAs in Delray Beach's water is an issue that should be taken seriously, not ignored.

“This is a wakeup call, but also an opportunity for our city to lead by example. Delray Beach can effectively raise the bar in terms of water quality policy here, but leadership needs to be willing to have an honest conversation about this," Long said.

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This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: State health department orders Delray Beach to test city water for level of 'forever' chemicals

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