May 10, 2021

The obvious truth about Delray’s drinking water | Opinion

It’s probably apocryphal, but German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer supposedly said, “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”

Regardless of whether he said it back in the 19th century, it’s a truism that has stood the test of time. Here in the 21st, some of Delray Beach’s leadership was still wading somewhere between stages one and two last November, when I shared a warning from the environmental advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) about PFAS in city drinking water. The findings were a big deal — PFAS are colloquially known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down under usual environmental conditions.

Mayor Shelly Petrola and City Commissioner Juli Casale rebuffed the PFAS warnings from PEER as “ridiculous,” “misinformation,” and joked that further treatment of Delray’s water would turn it into “distilled water.” An attempt to remove me from the city’s Planning & Zoning Board was even attempted for “inciting panic” but abruptly abandoned when the Florida Department of Health validated the reports I shared and ordered quarterly PFAS testing through 2021. Clearly jittery from a flurry of heavily reported water issues, the city commission directed staff to hire a new PR firm in December to “better respond to water issues.” Many felt that maybe Delray leadership missed the point.

But that was a whole five months ago. Since then, it seems the tides have shifted, and Delray’s leadership has officially entered stage three — accepting a truth as self-evident. During a city workshop, the mayor, city commission and staff accepted PFAS in the water supply as an obvious and warranted concern. A presentation by the interim city manager and utilities director proposing a brand new $60 million water treatment plant specifically mentioned PFAS removal. In fact, the presentation emphasized contaminant removal (including contaminants that could soon be regulated by the EPA) via nanofiltration and reverse osmosis — which has been the standard in nearby Lake Worth Beach for the last 12 years.

It might have been a rocky road, but if the destination is unanimous support for a new water treatment plant, then it was worth muscling through the political melodrama. The reality is that Delray’s water treatment plant is almost 70 years old. In that time, Delray’s population has increased more than 10-fold and continues to grow, so serving Delray’s increasing population is a real concern.

To be fair, the existing plant’s treated water currently meets the EPA’s Safe Water Act standards. However, that goalpost could be moving, given recent progress at the national level towards regulating PFAS and other harmful chemicals in drinking water. An updated plant could be essential to keeping up with new regulations on contaminant removal and public safety.

The Delray utilities department deserves praise for bringing this major undertaking to the forefront. Regardless of initial reactions from some of Delray’s finest, they all deserve credit for evolving on their respective positions. Hopefully, some lessons were learned, and we can get through the “three stages of truth” more fluidly next time.