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Riviera Beach concluded positive E. Coli water test 'false positive,' emails show

City staff blame the sudden departure of compliance manager, another employee on medical delay for not notifying State Department of Health
Posted at 1:19 AM, Feb 07, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-07 01:19:11-05

RIVIERA BEACH, Fl. — The city of Riviera Beach believed tests showing fecal coliform and E. Coli in city wells during June were a false positive, according to emails WPTV received from a public records request.

Records show the "false positive" conclusion led to city staff not creating a public notice. But emails from Riviera Beach Utility Director Michael Low show the city didn't directly follow standards to retest the area for improper bacteria.

Riviera Beach Utility Director Michael Low.
Riviera Beach Utility Director Michael Low.

Ewa Kudela-Leczynski, who is an environmental manager for the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach, said the repeat samples have to come from the tap where the failure occurred along with places upstream and downstream within five service connections.

Instead, Low explained the city immediately resampled the location, which failed, and regular sampling stations on each side. He said the city didn't comply with the standard because employees received threats in the past.

"Going forward there is a problem in trying to conform to the rule without potentially risking the employees undertaking the sampling," Low wrote on Sept. 29, 2023. "We have a documented case in which our lab technicians felt threatened by an armed citizen who was questioning their presence at a home trying to get a supplemental sample."

Riviera Beach Utility District sign


Riviera Beach collected 'fecal positive samples' from water served to customers

Dave Bohman
6:35 PM, Feb 06, 2024

He also said this came after a lab technician felt threatened by an "armed citizen," who questioned his presence at a home to collect samples. Low also said this recommendation from the Utilities Special District, which governs water and sewer services for the city of Riviera Beach, came after a meeting with the city assistant police chief, risk manager and other members of management at the Utilities Special District.

Originally, Low told WPTV's Dave Bohman and the City Council for Riviera Beach that the city didn't create a public notice because the infected water was treated at the city's water treatment plant.

However, Mayor Ronnie Felder said the bacteria did get into the drinking water at an announcement Monday after meeting with the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County. Felder said he would also start an investigation into the problem and the reasons inaccurate information was shared with the council at public meetings.

Records, which WPTV received from a records request, show the city had already finished an investigation in September 2023 about the issue.

The investigation found the independent laboratory taking tests was only sending information to two city staff members. One of those employees was out of the office for several weeks on medical leave. The other employee, the department's compliance manager, terminated his employment with the Utilities Special District.

The report said the employee was scheduled to remain in his position until June 16, but only showed up to work on June 14. It recommended having the independent laboratory include more than two staff members when returning water quality data analysis. 

Margie DeBerry became the new compliance manager after the former employee left. Emails show the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County assisted DeBerry perform her roles within the city of Riviera Beach.

Records show a staff member from the health agency had to remind DeBerry to submit public notices for maintenance work. He also helped her understand the agency's responsibilities if a sample came back positive for fecal bacteria and attached examples for filling out different forms.

"I've also included Level 1 and Level 2 assessment forms for your convenience since I know you are new," wrote Emmanuel Peters, an environmental specialist at the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, on Nov. 8.

Records show DeBerry also struggled to answer questions from the department as well.

For example, a staff member for the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County asked for clarification to determine if the infected water got into the drinking water. Then, DeBerry said a well "was shut down" and "isolated from the system by valve", a contradiction in the same sentence.

After further questioning from the health agency, DeBerry admitted there was a minimal possibility of well water seeping into the system in an email sent on Dec. 11, 2023.

A public notice about the contamination was posted on the city's website on Jan. 19 Records show the first draft sent to the Florida Department of Health for Palm Beach County for review on Dec. 18.

Records show DeBerry asked to change the language in the notice multiple times, which delayed its release as the department reviewed different versions of the notice.

In one example, she asked repeatedly to delete a sentence indicating the city didn't know about the quality of the drinking water on June 27 and June 28. The Florida Department of Health for Palm Beach County declined because it said the language was mandatory.

DeBerry, then asked the health department about the length of time the post was required to stay on the city's website in an email sent on January 22.

An employee for the health agency said state law gives no additional guidance as long as the distribution method reaches every affected customer in a response. The post is still up as of Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the city of Riviera Beach said it has "no comment" on this story. WPTV reached out to DeBerry late Tuesday. We are still awaiting a statement.