Blue-green algae toxin was found at the entry point of West Palm Beach’s water distribution system 55 times over the past five years, according to a warning letter from the state Department of Health to the city.
The letter does not indicate that, before May of this year when the city issued a drinking water advisory, the toxin exceeded federal health advisory levels.
Still, the Department of Health informed West Palm Beach on Tuesday that it could face damages and civil penalties for violating state law by not notifying the DOH of test results showing the presence of cylindrospermopsin — the toxin in question — and for not issuing a public notice within 24 hours of learning that toxin levels in samples taken from May 17 to May 26 exceeded federal health advisory limits.
DOH officials told West Palm Beach Public Utilities Director Poonam Kalkat the warning letter was part of a preliminary investigation and the city was given 15 days to respond.
“We believe that the city’s actions have been consistent with all applicable rules and statutes, and we look forward to meeting with the Department of Health,” the city wrote in a statement emailed to The Palm Beach Post.
Assertions in the DOH’s warning letter run starkly counter to the narrative the city put forward that cylindrospermopsin is a toxin for which the city does not regularly test and that there is no set protocol for how to respond to a positive test.
In fact, in laying out four areas where the city may have violated state law, DOH’s warning letter indicates that West Palm Beach has tested for cylindrospermopsin since at least August 2016 and that there are specific notification requirements tied to positive test results for the toxin.
The letter is likely to revive the fear and frustration of those who rely upon West Palm Beach for drinking water and who feel the city did not act quickly enough to warn them of the threat.
West Palm’s water mess: Accountability is the issue
West Palm Beach provides drinking water to its residents and to those of Palm Beach and South Palm Beach.
Mayor Keith James said he has apologized to officials from those cities for not notifying them of the problem more quickly.
He may have more fences to mend in light of the DOH warning letter.
“I think I feel the same way everyone else does,” Palm Beach Town Manager Kirk Blouin said. “I’m disappointed and even more concerned than I was previously. It appears to be a lack of transparency.”
Blouin added: “They (West Palm Beach) weren’t following proper policies and procedures that they were required to follow. They detected this in the water before, and it wasn’t disclosed to us, and it wasn’t disclosed to the authorities they were supposed to report to….