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Federal investigation provides clues about how fecal matter got into Riviera Beach water

WPTV working to get answers after E. coli contaminated city's drinking water
Posted at 2:21 PM, Apr 30, 2024

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. — Since Riviera Beach officials first announced in January that water from a city well had tested positive for E. coli seven months earlier, questions have remained unanswered about the quality of the city's drinking water.

WPTV has been working to get those answers.

The mayor and utility director have not answered my questions, despite numerous requests over the past few months.

Now, recently obtained U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records of its interactions with Riviera Beach are getting WPTV closer to those answers.

Holes in well casings, leaking pumps and plants growing out of a clarifier are just a few of the findings detailed in this federal inspection report for Riviera Beach's public drinking water system that EPA agents inspected in October 2023, about four months after tests revealed E. coli in one of the city's wells and three months before city leaders told the public about it in January.

vegetation growing out of Riviera Beach water clarifier
This photograph provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows vegetation growing out of a Riviera Beach water clarifier.

"How sure are you that the water … was safe to drink?" WPTV investigative reporter Dave Bohman asked Riviera Beach utility director Michael Low in January.

Riviera Beach Utility Director Michael Low answers questions from WPTV investigative reporter Dave Bohman about the quality of drinking water in the city.
Riviera Beach Utility Director Michael Low answers questions from WPTV investigative reporter Dave Bohman about the quality of drinking water in the city.

"I'm sure," Low said.

He said repairs were made to the well where the bacteria was found, and the treatment plant is designed to get rid of that bacteria before the water goes out to homes and businesses.

"Our procedure and our process provided the necessary surety to the public," Low said.

After that conversation, WPTV uncovered records from the Florida Department of Health revealing E. coli was also detected in a well in early June and at a home in August.

Low wouldn't answer questions about those tests, but in an email to the Florida Department of Health, he said the June result was a false positive.

Low later told my colleague Ethan Stein when approached at a meeting that the August test was also a false positive but did not provide any information to support that.

"Scientifically speaking, everything they're doing is right," Dr. Esber Andiroglu said.

Andiroglu is a civil engineering and architecture professor at the University of Miami. He specializes in water infrastructure.

"We are at a global scale facing water scarcity and access to fresh, clean water," he said.

Because Miami is not part of his viewing area, Andiroglu had not seen WPTV's ongoing coverage of Riviera Beach's water. So, I asked him to review the inspection report.

Dr. Esber Andiroglu, University of Miami professor specializing in water infrastructure
Dr. Esber Andiroglu is a University of Miami professor who specializes in water infrastructure.

"Ongoing maintenance and operation seems to be kind of, like, falling short … and then I noticed number of opportunities where that fecal matter could have been introduced," he said.

Those opportunities, Andiroglu said, are mainly from the holes and leaks spotted by inspectors.

"So if water is leaking out, then the reverse can also happen and contaminants can penetrate in," he said.

Andiroglu said while the inspection report provides clues about how the bacteria got into the water, there could be other contributing factors – like contaminated soil – that wouldn't have been identified in an inspection.

But Adiroglu also pointed to procedural deficiencies noted in the report that could have helped identify the source of any contamination, including an incomplete bacteria sampling plan and a lack of maintenance records.

"In my mind, they're easy to resolve, but, you know, why aren't they happening?" Adiroglu said.

According to the report, the utility provided evidence that some of those issues were taken care of by Oct. 31.

In response to the EPA's findings, the utility provided its revised bacteriological sampling plan.

The response included photos of replaced gauges, sealed holes and other necessary repairs.

Riviera Beach photo showing sealed water well hole
The city of Riviera Beach says it has already fixed some of the issues, including sealing the holes in the water wells.

But the utility also said it was still working to fix other problems. It was still "seeking a vendor" for some repairs.

While the utility agreed that "maintenance records were not well kept," it was — at the time of the October response — still in the middle of "implementing a new software program" to keep those records.

Low declined my request for an interview and a firsthand look at the repairs, citing unspecified "security implications" as the reason.

Still, Andiroglu hopes the conversation about Riviera Beach's water can continue.

"We got to identify really a heart-to-heart discussion with this agency, that jurisdiction, why these defects happen? Why they were not addressed in a timely manner? And why do they continue to persist?" he said.

Riviera Beach finished water pipe, Jan. 26, 2024
A finished water pipe is visible, Jan. 26, 2024, in Riviera Beach.

He believes a system like Riviera Beach, which only serves one community instead of an entire region, will be vital to address water and energy shortages in the future.

"It is important that we make these types of operations a success … but if we are doing a bad job with this one, it kind of puts the brakes on everyone else who may want to do this because everyone can turn and say, 'Look, that was attempted and it failed,'" Andiroglu said.

About a month ago, WPTV identified signs that the drinking water is safe in Riviera Beach by testing the tap water. You can see that report in the video below.

WATCH: WPTV tests Riviera Beach tap water

WPTV tests Riviera Beach tap water following concerns

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