DELRAY BEACH — The city of Delray Beach hasn’t been able to completely stop the persistent drip of bad news flowing from its water issues, and Monday brought more of it.
Christine Ferrigan, a former Utilities Department employee, has filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city, including City Manager Terrence More and Utilities Director Hassan Hadjimiry.
Ferrigan’s suit comes only two months after she filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city, alleging she was terminated for bringing water treatment problems to the state’s attention when her managers were unresponsive to her concerns.
In Monday’s filing, Ferrigan claims she was fired from her position as industrial pre-treatment inspector for Delray Beach after she alerted the Florida Department of Health and Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General that partially treated sewage water 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. “Second, no one should be silenced for speaking out, or attacked or terminated, especially when it’s on something so important as water quality issues, public health and safety.”
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Delray Beach has paid more than $1 million, in addition to a $1 million fine, to address longstanding water-treatment problems. It also has replaced a city manager and a Utilities Department director, and is building 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 fix the water problems put the public at risk and discourages other city employees from speaking up about public health concerns.”
In her whistleblower lawsuit, Ferrigan is asking for back pay, attorneys’ fees, and expenses and compensatory damages. She’s also seeking a promotion she was denied or a comparable position. And she wants her son — whom 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 the government honest,” Ferrigan said. “They expose corruption and prevent things from happening.”
The city says Ferrigan’s job 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 23-year Utility Services employee.
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’s lawyer said Ferrigan was fired for job performance reasons.
A settlement was eventually reached. Ferrigan received $322,500. Boca Raton admitted no wrongdoing.
Delray Beach has a long history of water problems
“City of Delray Beach drinking water meets all health advisory standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Health,” the city’s Water Utilities Department site says. “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 pre-treatment inspector. In November 2018, the city’s Utilities Department began fielding phone calls from residents who complained of smelly and discolored drinking water. Some said they or their pets were getting sick, Ferrigan says.
Ferrigan told Utilities Department managers the water she saw during her inspections looked like reclaimed water — partially treated wastewater intended for watering lawns, not drinking, suggesting possible backflow problems in the distribution system.
Ferrigan asked management for a list of backflow-prevention devices that had been installed by the city, but her request was ignored, her lawsuit alleges. Some 581 homes either had improperly installed backflow preventers or none at all.
In December 2018, Ferrigan says she was directed to begin cross-connection inspections, starting with a beachfront mansion on South Ocean Boulevard owned by Russell Weiner, the billionaire founder of Rockstar energy drink. She discovered a cross-connection contamination issue and reported it, she says.
Her managers disclosed the cross-connection problem to the Florida Department of Health, but not the fact that some residents had recently reported becoming sick, Ferrigan’s lawsuit contends. Ferrigan had been instructed by her superiors not to cooperate with the state Health Department or Palm Beach County Office of the Inspector General, she alleges.
She eventually was interviewed by both agencies. She also provided help to a national environmental nonprofit organization.
Jasmine Fernández is a journalist covering 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.