United Water, 2 Employees Indicted for CWA Violations in Gary, Indiana

The Justice Department says the employees allegedly turned up disinfectant treatment for daily wastewater sampling; United Water refutes the charges.

United Water Services Inc., the former contract operator of the Gary Sanitary District wastewater treatment works in Gary, Ind., and two of its employees, were charged with conspiracy and felony violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in a 26-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury, the Justice Department announced Dec. 8.

United Water Services Inc., and employees Dwain L. Bowie and Gregory A. Ciaccio have been charged with manipulating daily wastewater sampling methods by turning up disinfectant treatment levels shortly before sampling, then turning them down shortly after sampling.

United Water Services entered into a 10-year contract to operate the Gary Sanitary District wastewater treatment works in 1998, in exchange for $9 million annually. United Water’s contract was renewed in May 2008. As contract operator, the company operated and maintained the treatment works and was responsible for environmental compliance. To ensure compliance with the discharge permit, United Water was required to take periodic representative wastewater samples, including a daily sample to determine the concentration of E. coli bacteria in the wastewater.

According to the indictment, the defendants conspired to tamper with E. coli monitoring methods by turning up levels of disinfectant dosing prior to E. coli sampling. The indictment states that the defendants would avoid taking E. coli samples until disinfectants had reached elevated levels which, in turn, were expected to lead to reduced E. coli levels. Immediately after sampling, the indictment alleges, the defendants turned down disinfectant levels, thus reducing the amount of treatment chemicals they used.

Dwain Bowie was United Water’s project manager for the Gary facility beginning in 2002, and was in charge of the Gary operation. Gregory Ciaccio joined Bowie’s staff in July 2003, and eventually was promoted to plant superintendent.

The law makes it a felony to tamper with required monitoring methods at a permitted facility like the Gary Sanitary District. If convicted, Bowie and Ciaccio face up to five years in prison on the conspiracy count and two years on each of the CWA counts, as well as a criminal fine of up to $250,000 for each count. The company also may face fines and/or probation.

The case was investigated by the Northern District of Indiana Environmental Crimes Task Force, including agents from the Criminal Investigation Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI and the Indiana State Police. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Indiana and the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.

United Water officials refuted the environmental criminal charges filed Dec. 8 by U.S. Department of Justice in Hammond, Ind., regarding the company’s former operation of the Gary Sanitary District facilities. The company operated the district’s wastewater treatment facilities from 1998 to 2010.

“We are extremely disappointed in the course of action taken by the Department of Justice,” said Robert Iacullo, president of United Water. “The allegations are unfounded and we believe that a jury will agree once the facts are presented. Environmental sustainability is the very lifeblood of our business. The government’s claim is, at best, a disagreement about operating and monitoring methods, with no allegation of environmental harm. Trying to make a crime out of this disagreement is an abuse of prosecutorial discretion.”

He noted that United Water’s 12-year record of managing and operating Gary’s wastewater facilities is exemplary, as evidenced by the numerous Indiana Water Environment Association Excellence Awards the company received for safety and the integrity of their laboratory procedures. “Our record in Gary is well-documented and stands today as an example of efficient plant operation and environmental stewardship,” Iacullo said.

He explained that when United Water assumed operation of the Gary wastewater facilities, the district was under an EPA consent decree to find an independent contractor to run its system. In addition, there were dozens of consent issues that had been problematic for decades. Within two years of United Water operating the district facilities, numerous consent decree items had been resolved, and the EPA returned oversight of the wastewater facilities to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

“During our tenure in Gary, our team implemented numerous safety and training programs for our employees,” said Brent Fewell, United Water’s vice president for environmental compliance. ”The facility was under constant inspection and oversight by environmental agencies, and we operated in a transparent manner. Most important, the quality of the water discharged from the plant into the Grand Calumet River improved significantly under our operation. The Grand Calumet River is cleaner today than it’s been in years.”

Founded in 1869, United Water provides water and wastewater services to approximately 7 million people in the United States. In addition to owning and operating 20 water utilities, the company operates more than 200 municipal and industrial water and wastewater systems through innovative public-private partnerships and contract agreements.

For another take on this story, see this Post Tribune online story.