Delray Tests the Water, Candidates Line Up & More

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Delray Beach must test the city’s water for a year to monitor the level of cancer-causing chemicals.

The Florida Department of Health issued the order last week in a letter to Utilities Director Hassan Hajidmiry. The issue is perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment and can build up in humans. They are in 4,000 products, many used to make non-stick cookware and waterproof clothing.

According to the letter, a test on Aug. 11 revealed a level of 49 parts per trillion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory level is 70. On Oct. 29, a similar test yielded a result of just 0.43 parts per trillion.

Based on those results, the letter said, the city must sample the water for PFAS every three months and send the results to the state within a week. Those samples will come from where water leaves the city plant and enters the distribution system. Delray Beach also must sample all 30 water wells and await “further guidance.”

Though the letter doesn’t specify what prompted the order, one reasonably can assume that the state had questions about the PFAS level dropping so dramatically in less than three months. Nothing in the letter suggests wrongdoing by the city, but the second number could have been an outlier.

In recent months, PFAS have drawn more attention nationwide. Though the EPA set that advisory level, it is non-enforceable. Many states require levels that are lower than Delray Beach’s 49 ppt reading in August. Research continues, but the known health risks go beyond cancer to include low birth weight, reduced fertility, high cholesterol and weakening of the immune system. PFAS were the subject of “Dark Waters,” the 2019 movie about contamination in West Virginia from a DuPont plant.

In his response to the state, Hajidmiry said he had planned to ask for a third test. A spokeswoman said, “The city of Delray Beach is committed to regularly testing water samples for PFAS in order to refute the misleading claims made by PEER earlier this year and to provide clarity to our customers.”

PEER is Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The group has called attention to the issue of PFAS in Delray Beach, angering city officials who contend that the news releases alarm residents.

The spokeswoman said, “Despite the fact that most cities in our area get their raw water from the same source, no other city has committed to performing these types of tests on this regular a 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 (Florida Department of Health, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and EPA).

Jerry Phillips is Florida field director for PEER. He called that comment “a curious response” and part of Delray Beach’s “mind-boggling” reaction to PFAS reports.

By adding wells to the testing order, Phillips said, the state likely is trying to identify the source of the chemicals. “What city official wouldn’t want to do everything?” Phillips asked.

Yet water has become a charged political issue in Delray Beach. At today’s city commission meeting, Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioner Julie Casale may try again to remove Vice Chairman Rob Long from the planning and zoning board because of an email he sent about PEER’s Oct. 26 news release on PFAS.

Long sent the email in his capacity as chairman of the Palm Beach County Soil and Water Conservation District. He acknowledged that the city’s levels satisfied the EPA standards. He also pointed out, however, that seven states have set standards that Delray Beach wouldn’t meet and suggested that the city consider its own tougher standard.

On Monday, Long told me that the Department of Health letter “basically vindicates what I put out.” In an op-ed article for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Long restated the points in his email and praised Hajidmiry for addressing so many of the water problems in the city. Long reiterated that Florida has set no PFAS standards.

“This is not an attempt to scare residents or lay blame,” Long wrote. “This is an opportunity for our city to have an honest discussion and make the necessary long-term investments that will create a more sustainable future.”

Petrolia and Casale accused Long of needlessly scaring residents because the water is safe. But the Department of Health letter reminds residents that the matter isn’t settled. Would the commission now remove Long for saying the same thing?

If that happens, Long said, “We’ll know that it’s just political.” Petrolia is up for re-election and water is certain to be a major issue.

At its last meeting, the commission spent nearly an hour talking about Long. He called that “an insane amount of time. If they had spent 44 minutes talking about water and what to do, that would have made sense.”

Petrolia and Casale have demanded that Long apologize for his email. Given that the state’s letter considers the testing a way to determine whether PFAS “constitute an unreasonable risk to health,” what does Long have to apologize for?

Long short on apologies               

Petrolia and Casale also want Long to apologize for leaving the Oct. 19 virtual meeting of the planning and zoning board a few minutes before it ended. Long previously apologized to city employees who were part of the meeting.

On Monday, he told the six other board members that “it was a mistake” to leave “before adjournment. I take responsibility for my actions and intend to deal with future challenges that may present themselves during meetings in a more appropriate manner.

“Together, I hope this board can cultivate a collegial and collaborative atmosphere that facilitates the best possible advisement to the Delray Beach City Commission.”

Delray races begin

Qualifying for Delray Beach’s March election begins at noon today, but the races already are taking shape.

As I have written, Tracy Caruso has filed paperwork to challenge Petrolia. She is married to State Rep. Mike Caruso, whose district includes Delray Beach. Given her husband’s donor network, Caruso will be well-financed.

With Caruso’s candidacy, the question becomes whether Tennille DeCoste will drop out. The city’s former human resources director filed paperwork to run for mayor last June and has raised $11,000. But she has spent almost all that money, and she listed no contributions for October. The mayor’s critics likely worry that a third candidate would split the vote and hurt Caruso’s chances.

Seat 1 incumbent Adam Frankel will get a challenge from Price Patton. Last year, Petrolia recruited Julie Casale for her successful campaign against incumbent Bill Bathurst for Seat 2. Patton is similarly aligned with the mayor. She invited him to the meet-and-greet for city manager candidates. Patton and his wife, Carolyn Patton, each gave $500 to Casale.

Only incumbent Ryan Boylston has filed to run for Seat 3. In an email, he touted endorsements from seven previous mayors, including Petrolia’s predecessor, Cary Glickstein. The email also noted endorsements from the police and fire unions and from the union that represents the city’s non-public safety employees.

“The early support,” Boylston said, “is big news, and there is more to come in the next few days.” Petrolia has made clear her displeasure with Boylston and Frankel because they opposed her on big issues. The deadline for qualifying is Dec. 18.

CBD retailers get second shot                            

At today’s meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission will hold a second hearing on an ordinance that would allow cannabidiol (CBD) retailers to operate. The city’s moratorium expires next month.

Though CBD is an ingredient in marijuana, it does not produce a high. Makers tout it as a remedy for many health problems, but the primary established benefit is help for children who suffer from epilepsy.

The ordinance would prohibit CBD stores within 300 feet of schools, places of worship and any business that serves alcohol. Only one store could be on each block.

The planning and zoning board recommended approval of the ordinance on the condition that the city prohibit stores in the downtown business district. The Downtown Development Authority, worried about Delray Beach’s “character,” recommended that the city extend the moratorium for another year to allow more study.

Conspiracy theorist Tracy loses bid for trial

Former Florida Atlantic University professor James Tracy, who wrote on a private blog that the 2012 slaughter at Sandy Hook School didn’t happen, has lost his bid for a new trial.

A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Tracy two weeks ago. He claimed that FAU wrongly fired him on First Amendment grounds, given the controversial nature of his false claim. The university said that Tracy had been insubordinate for ignoring, over the course of a year, the rule that professors disclose outside activity such as a blog.

The panel found that Tracy produced “circumstantial evidence” of First Amendment retaliation. Jurors, though, disregarded it. Tracy’s only option is an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.