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For Immediate Release: Dec 06, 2010
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

BOCA RATON UTILITY WORKERS BLOW WHISTLE ON HEALTH RISKS

Employee Survey Underlines Drinking Water, Sewage and Big Compliance Questions


Washington, DC — Water utility employees in Boca Raton, Florida report threats to local drinking water, major sewage violations, and orders to ignore pollution violations according to workplace survey results released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Florida utility has been roiled by whistleblower disclosures and a call from PEER for federal intervention to address ongoing wastewater breakdowns. This fall, PEER mailed a survey to every employee within the Boca Raton Utilities Services Department consisting of questions composed by current and former workers. Among the survey results are that –

  • One in three respondents are convinced that “public health or safety has been jeopardized because of shortcuts taken by Utilities Services Department management”;
  • One in four reports they personally “have been directed not to report serious important environmental problems”; and
  • More than one in four says they are aware of instances where utility managers have directed staff “not to report environmental violations to other state and/or local agencies [or] not to properly or fully document environmental violations.”

“Something besides the sewage stinks in Boca Raton,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former state pollution enforcement lawyer who oversaw the survey. “Staff being directed to overlook or hide violations is symptomatic of much bigger problems, apart from noncompliance with pollution laws.”

The PEER survey was returned by 39 of 136 employees, a 28% rate of return that may have been depressed by the fact that utility director Chris Helfrich seized the mailed surveys when they arrived. As one employee wrote: “This survey was taken by Chris for consultation to the city attorney to see if he could get away without us receiving the survey.” Another added “The utility director has set up ballot boxes, requesting employees to make copies of their surveys and turn them over to the city….knowing these are supposed to be confidential surveys.”

After being advised that he could not intercept first class mail, Helfrich doled the surveys out personally to each employee, admonishing them to be loyal to the agency while also passing out gift cards to retail chains such as Subway Restaurants and Publix Supermarkets as “awards” for good performance. Perhaps not surprisingly, nearly half of all respondents “fear job retaliation for reporting concerns to upper Utilities Services Department management.” In addition –

  • Roughly one in three respondents feel utility “management is more concerned about being perceived as being compliant with environmental regulations than they are about actually complying with them” and that the emphasis “management places on environmental compliance has declined” during the past four years; and
  • Nearly half believe that hiring and promotion decisions are more based on personal relationships with the senior managers than merit and a similar percentage contends that micromanagement “has gotten out of hand.”

“Heavy handed over-reaction by utility management converted this anonymous survey into a profile in courage for employees who candidly completed questionnaires,” Phillips added. “The question now is whether these issues continue to fester or whether outside intervention will lance the boil.”

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See the full survey results

Read the essays from employees

Look at the PEER call for federal intervention in Boca Raton