Fighting Back 

City, plant supervisor respond to mismanagement charges

In the wake of a scathing report that accuses the management at the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant of serious environmental, health and safety violations—including frequent systems failures, improper maintenance, the falsification of documents and other mismanagement—officials from the plant, the City of Missoula and the Missoula Health Department have released documents of their own that either refute or deny most of those charges, while acknowledging that some problems have already been addressed or warrant further investigation.

Those documents, prepared by Environmental Health Supervisor Peter Nielsen, Plant Supervisor Starr Sullivan, Chief Administrative Officer Janet Stevens, Public Works Director Bruce Bender and others, address point by point the allegations in the original report or “white paper.” That white paper, entitled “Fouling Our Nest: Gross Negligence at the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant,” was written anonymously by several current and former plant employees and issued by a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization known as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

City documents challenge the white paper’s assertions that a sewage bypass—the discharge into the Clark Fork River of wastewater that has been treated only once instead of twice—amounts to a permit violation under Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) regulations. The City insists that bypasses must be reported to the DEQ only if effluent discharge limits have been exceeded. Furthermore, the city points out that most communities along the Clark Fork River, such as Drummond, Superior and Thompson Falls, only perform single (or primary) wastewater treatment, and regularly discharge that wastewater into the river.

City documents also say that it is “mistaken information” that its staff installed illegal backflow prevention devices, which are designed to prevent sewage from contaminating the plant’s drinking water supply. The City says that its devices conform to the Uniform Plumbing Code, offer the highest degree of protection and have been installed safely in other places around the city, including at the Missoula County Fairgrounds.

The Health Department’s Nielsen does acknowledge, however, that the close proximity of a drinking water well to an injection well poses a problem that needs addressing. In a phone interview with the plant supervisor, Sullivan admits that this problem was an oversight on his part, but says the problem was corrected the week after the white paper was released. He refutes the allegation, however, that the plant’s potable water supply was ever compromised.

In response to charges that the City’s Sewage Treatment Effluent Pumping (STEP) program is faulty and “more leak prone than leak proof,” the City responded by saying, “The recently adopted Missoula Wastewater Facilities Plan Update 1999 has limited the usage of STEP sewer to the current service areas. There are no further installation of STEP systems beyond the current installed service areas.”

Sullivan also responded to allegations that his staff uses irregular or illegal methods for monitoring chlorine levels, arguing that the methodology outlined in the white paper was a 10-year-old draft that was never implemented.

Sullivan further answered charges that the plant’s mismanagement of methane gas has led to dangerous workplace conditions and frequent methane discharges into the environment, saying those claims are “inaccurate and outright false.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Sullivan said in a phone interview. “We’ve made some mistakes in the past and we’ll make some in the future, but we always try to correct those as they’re brought to our attention.”

Although city policy precludes Sullivan and other city officials from publicly discussing personnel matters, Sullivan did say that he believes most of the allegations in the report stem from personnel conflicts with certain disgruntled employees, who have contributed to “a stressful work environment.”

Such claims are not uncommon following the release of a white paper, says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. According to Ruch, PEER has helped public employees write 30 other white papers across the nation since 1992, which are often received with official hostility, denials and personal attacks on the employees’ credibility.

Since this is PEER’s first white paper released in Montana, and the charges it contains, including “gross negligence,” are very serious and have potentially criminal implications, the Independent inquired into PEER’s own track record on its other white papers. We discovered that:

• PEER released a white paper in Florida called “Dereliction of Duty” which profiled one district office of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. That report triggered a grand jury investigation that confirmed the white paper’s allegations and resulted in two Florida legislators going to jail for income tax evasion.

• A Connecticut white paper called “A Friend in High Places” revealed that Gov. John Rowland’s top political operative had been placed in Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection as a “fixer” on environmental enforcement matters and was having closed-door meetings with violators. That white paper resulted in the resignation of several top officials in the Rowland administration.

• A report on the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse program called “Horses to Slaughter” documented how the BLM was complicit in letting its wild horse adoption program be used for the illegal trafficking of wild horses to slaughterhouses. That program has since been revamped.

Although such a track record does not speak directly to the veracity of the allegations made about the Missoula wastewater treatment plant, it does lend an air of credibility to the people who helped prepare that report.

“We’re not sewage specialists,” says Ruch. “We’re there to help the employees, if you will, lubricate the system.”

“Most of the staff out here, we always thought we were just here to clean up the water,” says Sullivan. “This kind of thing is really beyond most of us and we don’t understand where it’s coming from. We just want to get back to our jobs.”

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