PEER Pressure 

Independent panel recommends changes at Missoula sewage plant

Seven months after employees blew the whistle on problems at the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant, an independent review committee that was appointed to look into those allegations has recommended changes that closely parallel most of the workers’ initial recommendations.

Last fall, Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas asked a committee to look into allegations made in an Oct. 5 “white paper” issued by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The white paper, written anonymously by current and former plant employees, accused plant managers of “gross negligence” for allegedly falsifying reports, ignoring or downplaying equipment malfunctions, failing to report groundwater contamination, and other violations of state and federal environmental laws.

The three-member review committee—including Jim Carlson from the Missoula City-County Health Department, Marnie McClain in the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and Matt Clifford of the Clark Fork Coalition—found no evidence of malicious or illegal activities at the plant, or activities that met the threshold of “gross negligence.”

However, the committee did recommend that plant managers make procedural changes in six of the seven categories outlined in the PEER report. Mayor Kadas has asked that city staff implement all those recommendations within 30 days, or create a timetable for longer-term changes.

“I was both elated and disappointed with the report,” says Kevin Keenan, a former permit compliance officer with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality who now works for PEER in Helena. “In terms of its essence, it made a number of good suggestions. But in most instances it isn’t willing to say PEER was right and the city was wrong.”

Back in October, the white paper was greeted with shock and some skepticism on the part of the city. Within weeks, the administration and the Missoula Health Department issued several written responses acknowledging that problems have existed at the plant, some of which require further investigation. However, the city also claimed that many sections of the white paper were inaccurate, outdated, taken out of context, or downright false.

Moreover, some city officials suggested that the white paper was the work of disgruntled employees who were contributing to a hostile and stressful work environment at the plant. Shortly after the white paper’s release, one employee, who has long been critical of plant operations, was suspended from work and later accused his superiors of retaliation.

Last week’s report came within days of the 60-day deadline of PEER’s notice of intent to sue the city under the federal Clean Water Act. (A notice of intent to sue is required before a citizen files suit under the Clean Water Act.) Although PEER has not yet dismissed the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the city and has retained attorneys in Seattle and Missoula, negotiations with the city are underway. But according to Eric Wingerter with PEER in Washington D.C., “If all of these recommendations are implemented, we’d be pretty happy.”

While the review committee does not point fingers about who is to blame for the problems at wastewater plant, they do suggest that some of PEER’s criticisms are based on differing interpretations of the law.

“We believe that the employees of the Plant are professional and well intentioned,” the report reads. “Regrettably, differences of opinion in interpreting regulations and in conducting plant operations have led to factionalism which has created a tense and unpleasant work environment. While we have found that there are things that need to be improved at the Plant, we have encountered an open and responsive attitude from Plant supervisors and expect that any necessary changes can be readily implemented.”

“I thought they were pretty objective and even-handed about the whole thing,” says plant supervisor Starr Sullivan. “They did have some good recommendations. Some of them have already been taken care of.”

Still, Keenan is disappointed that several issues mentioned in the white paper are not addressed in the committee’s report, such as whether the water supply serving the plant should be considered “a public water supply” and regulated accordingly. The plant’s well, located only a few feet from an injection well that received sewage waste, was closed in late October just weeks after the white paper was released. For years it provided potable water not only to employees and visitors of the plant but to the neighboring Missoula Humane Society. He is also critical that the review committee made no mention of the plant’s practice of irrigating the lawn and trees surrounding the plant with sewage effluent, a practice criticized in the white paper.

Finally, Keenan is dismayed that the report makes no mention of the allegations of workplace retaliation against some plant employees for their suspected involvement in writing the white paper. Under the Clean Water Act, whistleblowers are protected from retaliation for reporting such violations and Keenan says that at the very least the city should acknowledge the risks taken by current employees to bring these public health concerns to light.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m tickled with the report. I’m tickled that the city is able to correct these things,” says Keenan. “But I’d like to see the city move more honestly and openly toward correcting these things rather than maintaining its claim that nothing was wrong.”

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