9 Investigates: Health concerns at Apopka wastewater treatment plant

APOPKA, Fla. — 9 Investigates learned that four employees have resigned from the Apopka wastewater treatment plant since October, citing safety and health concerns.

For months, investigative reporter Daralene Jones has been reviewing personnel files and city reports, detailing the problems about bad wastewater at the plant.

Joseph Faber told 9 Investigates he gave up on his job working at the Apopka wastewater treatment plant because he was afraid of losing his license, and because of concerns about his health. He offered a resignation letter in October, citing "unsafe conditions" and "fear of health conditions from exposure to the wastewater being treated."

“I just had enough of being put through it, and no one there would come forward and let us know what we're dealing with, really chemicals or what,” Faber said.

Similar health concerns were raised in resignation letters from three others, one even citing "deliberate non-compliance."

The chief operator, Glen Brooks, who had glowing reviews for more than 10 years, also filed a whistleblower letter raising concerns about conditions at the plant. He was fired three months later, in September, just days after an internal investigation was launched over allegations he lied and made false statements.

Faber told 9 Investigates the public should be concerned, especially those who live in nearby homes and still use well water. Faber echoed a concerned first raised by the whistleblower.

“You can't have that kind of water; that nitrogen being dumped on the ground, exceeding limits,” Faber said.

The state requires the city to keep its total suspended solid levels below 60 parts per million because they can contain silt, animal matter, industrial waste, even sewage.

Records show levels as high as 600 last year and city reports detail 13 issues, putting the plant out of compliance, sometimes for days.

After questions from 9 Investigates, the Department of Environmental Protection visit the plant in Apopka in mid-December.

The city provided this statement: "After consultations with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and with our engineering consultants, the city of Apopka acknowledges that there have been occasional operating issues with our 26-year-old wastewater treatment plant. From September through December, we experienced 16 separate episodes.

Even as the plant has experienced these episodes, there has been no impact to the public or the city's utility customers. We are working with FDEP, with the Florida Rural Water Association and with two outside engineering companies to pinpoint the cause. The city is committed to operating our aged wastewater facility with the highest regard for employee safety, public health and environmental safeguards. That's why we are breaking ground this month on a $61 million upgrade and expansion of the facility. We also implemented a new standard operating procedure designed to ensure that future non-compliance issues are properly reported to FDEP.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that if the previous administration had followed through with the $32 million expansion they engineered in 2010, it is unlikely Apopka would be in this position today."