Sludge Hits the Fan 

Report accuses Missoula water plant of “gross negligence”

By now much of Missoula has already caught a whiff of the foul reports emanating from the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant, where a group of current and past employees has accused plant management of serious environmental, public health and workplace safety violations. For those of you who have managed to keep your noses averted from the stench of those allegations, the following should get you up to speed:

On Oct. 5, a national nonprofit group known as PEER—Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility—released a report or “white paper” entitled, “Fouling Our Nest: Gross Negligence at the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant.” The white paper, written anonymously by current and former plant employees, describes falsified reports, system failures, unreported groundwater contamination, and other practices that allegedly violate state and federal environmental disclosure laws. The 24-page document characterizes the municipal facility as one “plagued by spills, bypasses and back flows which pollute the Clark Fork River, contaminate the groundwater aquifer and threaten the safety of the plant’s own drinking water supply.”

Among the worst of these spills was an overflow in November 1999 that allegedly spewed 160,000 gallons of sewage into the Clark Fork River. This accident occurred, the white paper asserts, due to unreliable alarms at the plant or because on-call supervisors ignored the alarm altogether. The report further claims that the precise number and severity of other spills of this kind are difficult to document due to incomplete records and a “business as usual atmosphere” that actively discourages employees from reporting violations to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The mishandling of biohazards are not the only allegations made in the report, however. It further alleges that due to poor management, equipment breakdowns and shoddy or nonexistent maintenance, the plant emits hazardous levels of methane gas, creating both a serious air quality problem and a health and safety risk.

Other toxic chemicals and compounds have also been mishandled, the report asserts, including a mercury spill in the plant that was cleaned up with a broom and, along with 400 discarded mercury switches, shipped to the city landfill as ordinary refuse.

Moreover, despite the fact that the treatment plant is not equipped to process hazardous wastes, the report claims that some pesticides, acids and other toxic chemicals collected during the City of Missoula’s annual “Hazardous Waste Collection Day,” eventually found their way into the sewage treatment process and subsequently, the Clark Fork River.

Still another section of the report accuses plant supervisors of “fudging data numbers” about the level of chlorine or coliform discharges by having employees adjust their levels until they came into compliance. Another section charges plant managers with “falsify[ing] the state application for Plant Operator certification for a laboratory technician in 1992.”

Since the white paper’s release last week, its authors and PEER have come under fire from the City and elsewhere for remaining anonymous in the wake of such serious allegations—“gross negligence” can be interpreted as the willful and wanton disregard for public health and safety—which, if proved accurate, could result in state or federal criminal charges. One of the people responsible for the report, however, stands by its every word.

“Falsifying data in the DMR [Discharge Monitoring Report] is a major transgression of state and federal law, and not reporting bypasses is a major violation of state and federal law. The public needs to know that,” says Montana PEER spokesman Kevin Keenan, who assisted Missoula employees in drafting the white paper.

Keenan, who worked for the DEQ for 26 years, including 18 years in its permit division, says that he was approached about a year ago by city employees who were frustrated that their complaints were not being adequately addressed through regular channels, but feared workplace retaliation or dismissal for being “disgruntled employees.”

“The report is anonymous because it needs to be, because the people involved in it have felt pressure from raising these issues previously,” says Keenan. “I understand that feeling because I did the same thing inside DEQ. I raised issues that were not popular and it’s very easy to get beaten bloody.”

Keenan says that despite assurances he’s received from the mayor’s office that no retaliation will take place against plant employees—whistleblower laws do protect employees who report wrongdoing, but labor experts say retaliation claims are often difficult to prove—some employees remain fearful for their jobs. Since the report’s release, the Independent has been contacted by two current or former plant employees who say the atmosphere there has already turned very sour, with all staff meetings canceled and certain employee policies suspended until further notice.

“It’s a pretty stressful environment, real hostile,” says one employee, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s a culture they’ve created out here to cover things up.”

At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Missoula Water Quality Advisory Council, plant supervisor Starr Sullivan did not comment on specific allegations, except to say that, “My division and I will take guidance and advice wherever it’s appropriate. If this council finds problems that need to be corrected, we’ll do that.

“There are many inaccuracies in that report,” Sullivan added. “I think that when you look at it, our record speaks for itself.”

A three-member independent review panel was appointed this week by Mayor Mike Kadas to look into the white paper allegations.

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