Employees of Missoula's Waste Water Treatment Plant blame negligent management for the frequent spills, bypasses and potential "backflows" that pollute the Clark Fork River, contaminate the city's groundwater, and threaten the safety of the plant's own drinking water, according to a white paper released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The report, titled Fouling Our Nest and written anonymously by current and former plant employees, charges that the chronic problems have been masked by management. Plant workers are frequently ordered to manipulate discharge monitoring tests and discouraged from reporting permit violations.
In recent years, the plant has experienced a number of failures causing sewage to flow directly into the Clark Fork River or to contaminate groundwater:
Sewage Bypasses. While many sewage treatment bypasses vary in quantity, several recent bypasses been enormous -- one in November 1999 spewed more than 160,000 gallons of sewage into the Clark Fork River. The precise number and extent of bypasses is difficult to document because plant management actively discourages staff from reporting violations to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) or EPA.
Sludge Tainting Groundwater. Due to system backups and clogs, overflows of sewage sludge escape containment areas and seep into the aquifer under the plant by entering injection wells intended for the disposal of stormwater.
Backflow Threat to Drinking Water. Improper backflow prevention devices used at the plant may enable raw sewage to contaminate the plant's drinking water supply and wells.
Aside from the bio-hazards associated with mishandling fecal matter in the raw sewage, the Missoula Waste Water Treatment Plant has irresponsibly handled toxic chemicals and compounds:
* Methane. Poor management and lack of equipment maintenance have contributed to a serious problem of methane gas emissions at the plant. Methane discharges have rotted out plant piping as methane leaks have become a daily occurrence.
* Mercury. Mercury spills from plant equipment have simply been swept up with brooms and sent to the city landfill. Similarly, approximately 400 faulty mercury float switches from the STEP system have also ended up at the local dump.
* Hazardous Wastes. Despite the fact that the plant is not designed to accept these wastes, acids, some pesticides and other chemicals collected by the City of Missoula at the annual "Hazardous Waste Collection Day" are dumped directly into the treatment process.
The system failures have been hidden from public view by a departmental culture of covering up problems and retaliating against those who step forward:
> An unapproved chlorine testing procedure was introduced at the plant in 1993 in order to obscure permit and water quality violations;
> The plant frequently runs without licensed supervisors or properly trained and certified operators; and
> Plant workers who have reported problems have been removed or punished. Plant staff willing to mask or cover up problems are promoted.
"Plant employees had been ignored and harassed when they brought these problems up with the city and with DEQ," commented Montana PEER Director Kevin Keenan, "Writing this paper was their last resort."
The paper concludes with a list of recommendations from plant staff, including the immediate launch of a criminal investigation, the establishment of a statewide task force to examine similar problems in other cities, and the adoption of a non-retaliation policy for whistleblowers. "PEER will be keeping very close tabs on the way oversight agencies act to remedy these problems," stated Keenan.
Keenan acknowledged that several hours of recent intense discussions between Montana PEER and the Missoula mayor's office have yielded positive results. However, a strong undercurrent of denial from treatment plant management staff necessitated the immediate release of the document.