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Our Town: Water advisory remains in place even though tests show toxin levels have fallen

The City of West Palm Beach’s drinking-water advisory remains in effect despite test results that show toxin levels in the water supply have fallen to undetectable levels.

That means that vulnerable members of the population in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach and South Palm Beach are still being advised that they should not drink the tap water.

Mayor Keith James said he called a press conference Thursday prepared to announce that the water advisory would be lifted. But he said he learned shortly before the conference that he needed the “blessing” of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection before lifting the advisory. The DEP approval had not come as of Thursday afternoon.

“I was hoping to have much better news,” James said. “But we will let you know when that advisory is lifted. I am cautiously optimistic it will be soon.”

Water samples taken June 1 and June 2 were tested by the state DEP and showed undetectable levels of cylindrospermopsin, a toxin produced by cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, said Dr. Poonam Kalkat, the city’s public utilities director.

Test results of a third water sample were expected as early as tomorrow, James said.

According to Kalkat, no surface water treatment plant in the state has recorded high levels of this contaminant until now.

“This is uncharted territory for them as well,” Kalkat said of the state DEP. “They are probably writing a playbook and guidelines for other treatment plants. This is a growing problem statewide.”

That “playbook” might include guidelines for water sampling and for monitoring for the contaminant going forward, she said.
James said he doesn’t know how long the DEP will take to reach a decision.

“We are reaching out to the governor’s office,” he said. “We’ve got state lobbyists up in Tallahassee burning up the phones. I want an answer as soon as possible.”

The city supplies water to 120,000 residents, including those in Palm Beach and West Palm Beach.

The city issued an advisory May 28 warning that cylindrospermopsin was detected at high levels in the drinking water from the city’s water treatment plant on May 19.

A health alert was put into place for vulnerable populations while the city worked to clear the system of toxins caused by the cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae.

Cylindrospermopsin can cause an upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea and liver and kidney damage. Only vulnerable populations were told they should not drink the toxin-tainted water. Those included young children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, people with pre-existing liver conditions and those receiving dialysis treatment.

James came under fire from Palm Beach Mayor Danielle Moore and others for waiting more than a week to inform officials and the public of the contamination. James responded that the city had waited for guidance from the Florida Department of Health.

After tests showed the blue-green algae toxin at elevated levels on May 19, the test was run three additional times and the city contacted the state Department of Health to begin an advisory, James said.

Results returned on May 27 showed the water supply contained toxins higher than what Environmental Protection Agency guidelines say are safe for vulnerable populations. Town officials were told of the contamination shortly before 5 p.m. on May 28, and the advisory was issued after 10 p.m. that evening. The Palm Beach Civic Association posted a notice to its members and residents immediately thereafter.

According to Poonam, the EPA threshold for the toxin is .7 ppb (parts per billion). The highest test result on city water samples during the month of May was 1.5 ppb, she said.

She said at Thursday’s press conference that tests of the samples taken June 1 and June 2 showed the toxin at less than .1.

James said those results are encouraging.

“We do have two consecutive days of clean tests,” he said. “Hopefully, we are restoring people’s confidence that we are getting back to where we need to be.”

James appeared to acknowledge that he should have communicated about the water safety issue sooner with his counterparts in Palm Beach and South Palm Beach.

“This whole experience is an opportunity for lessons learned,” he said. “I need to do a better job of reaching out to the mayors of cities that are our customers. These omissions were omissions of the mind and not the heart. There was no intent to harm or disrespect anyone or any municipality.”