Utilities Authority faces suit Gulf Breeze seeks reparations over contaminated water supply
Kimberly Blair @PensacolaNewsJournal.com Elizabeth Bluemink @PensacolaNewsJournal.com
The City of Gulf Breeze on Thursday hired a law firm to sue the Escambia County Utility Authority, alleging the city incurred expenses in dealing with contaminated water.
City Council members voted 4-0 to file a civil lawsuit against ECUA during a special meeting. Details of the suit are being outlined today by the McDonald Fleming Moorehead law firm of Pensacola.
Attorney Ed Fleming said he hopes to file the lawsuit by the end of the day.
Gulf Breeze is seeking reimbursement for the costs of installing a filter and a pipe estimated to be in excess of $1.3 million. The $475,000 filtration system was installed in 1998 to deal with brown water that the city claims was delivered by ECUA.
The amount of damages the city is seeking is expected to exceed recouping those expenses because costs still are being calculated, Fleming said. Gulf Breeze City Attorney Matt Dannheisser said the city would not have installed the larger pipe had it known it was not getting good-quality water.
The lawsuit likely will call for water customers to be reimbursed, too, Dannheisser said.
Council member Beverly Zimmern said she is pleased to finally be able to tell constituents that “we are taking this action,” she said after casting her vote.
Council member Clay Ford was not at the meeting.
Zimmern and other council members said they have been fielding calls from residents who want to know what the city planned to do about the issue since a report in the Pensacola News Journal revealed that ECUA supplied contaminated water to Pensacola and Gulf Breeze residents for four years.
“This is part of the city’s action, to find out what has transpired with the water, what did ECUA know and when did they know it?” said Gulf Breeze City Manager Edwin “Buz” Eddy.
ECUA Executive Director Stephen Sorrell said Thursday evening he was unaware of Gulf Breeze’s intention to file the lawsuit and declined further comment on it. He said ECUA staff members have nothing to hide.
ECUA board member Dale Perkins said he is disappointed by Gulf Breeze’s decision.
“The new administration has been trying hard to have a good relationship with Gulf Breeze. We’ve been working on projects together,” Perkins said. “I thought we had ironed out most of our differences. I wish they had more patience … but, oh well.”
Word of the impending lawsuit came on the same day ECUA board members voiced their confidence in the performance of the utility’s current administrators and stressed the safety of the drinking-water supply during their regular meeting.
“We are not going to put anyone’s health at risk,” said board Chairman Elvin McCorvey. The board unanimously approved a motion by Perkins to withdraw retirement or termination fees paid to any current or former staffers found guilty of any offenses related to the past contamination in local drinking- water supplies. “We should take some small action to instruct the staff to cooperate with any agency” investigating the ECUA’s actions regarding the pollution, Perkins said.
State Attorney Curtis Golden recently announced he plans for a grand jury to investigate the past actions of the ECUA staff regarding the radium contamination.
The board’s attorney, Bob Kievit, said the vote was appropriate. He said state law provides that employees convicted or who have pleaded no contest in criminal cases to forfeit their benefits under the state retirement system. Board member George Watson said the board will cooperate with any investigation.
“We wish it had not happened,” he said.
As a result of the revelations about groundwater contamination from radium, the ECUA, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and companies suspected of causing the pollution have come under scrutiny.
The radium has been linked to a plume of chemicals that originates at the Agrico Chemical Co. Superfund site in Pensacola. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing DEP to determine if it properly managed pollution risks from the ECUA wells.
Golden has said a major objective of the grand jury investigation would be to determine whether ECUA administrators knowingly put the community at risk of health problems.
The outcome of the investigation could result in criminal charges against the top ECUA administrators at the time, alleging dereliction of duty – a misdemeanor punishable upon conviction by a maximum of a year in jail and a $500 fine, Golden said.
Criminal charges also are possible against companies if it is determined they misled EPA into approving a cleanup plan that harmed people, Golden has said.
The ECUA administrators who argued against quickly cleaning up the radium and notifying the public were former Executive Director A.E. “Van” Van Dever Jr. and Bernie Dahl, scientific, technical and regulatory administrator. Van Dever was fired last year by the ECUA board. Dahl retired in January.
Van Dever has defended the utility’s actions. Dahl has declined to comment. The grand jury also could issue a report on its findings and recommend steps to correct the problem.
Among the possibilities: that the EPA reconsider its 1994 decision not to require Conoco, Agrico and several other companies responsible for the plume to pump out the polluted groundwater. The plume covers a quarter of the geography of the City of Pensacola.
The current cleanup plan calls for “natural attenuation,” a process that allows contamination from the plume to naturally filter out for an estimated 70 years, eventually.