Sanitation district lays off alleged whistleblower

September 16, 2010


A San Luis Obispo South County Sanitation lab employee’s complaints to the water board resulted in the plant receiving a notice of violation that included allegations that the plant discharged dirty water into the Pacific Ocean.

On Sept. 14, the district board voted 3-0 to eliminate Devina Douglas’ lab technician position, and contract with an outside laboratory to handle the bulk of its wastewater testing in order to allegedly cut costs. Douglas contends plant officials are retaliating against her for informing regulators of mismanagement.

On April 6, Douglas says she refused to throw away a sample that showed high levels of bacteria when instructed to do so by Jeff Appleton, the plant superintendent.

“Jeff said the chlorine dosing system is down, throw the sample away and give us some time to fix the system,” Douglas said. “I refused.”

John Wallace, president of Wallace Group and the district’s administrator, said that the release did not result in any problems. He also said he does not consider Douglas to be a whistleblower.

Douglas told CalCoastNews that Appleton asked her several times during the past year to manipulate samplings in order to cover for problems at the plant. Douglas then took her concerns to Wallace.

“Wallace took notes, but nothing changed,” Douglas said.

On March 29, Douglas received a poor employee performance evaluation. In less then a week, Douglas filed her first of six grievances.

Approximately a month later, Douglas said she informed the state and local water board of the plant’s mismanagement. An investigation that followed resulted in the plant being placed under a notice of violation

On July 21, the State Water Resource Control Board Enforcement Unit sent a notice of violation to the district.

According to the notice of violation, the plant had operating and maintenance deficiencies including a failure to retain discharge records and a 10 year failure to produce monthly reports required by government code. In addition, the plant had written procedures which said not to test during a regularly scheduled procedure that increased bacterial numbers.

“The procedure or direction of avoiding sampling when the effluent is anticipated to be of poor quality violates the discharge permit and constitutes improper effluent monitoring,” the violation says.

Following the notice of violation, Appleton stopped coming to the plant and filed for disability leave because of a stress, sources said.

A few years ago, Douglas was a lead investigator into a search to find out which entity was responsible for high levels of metals and other compounds that were being released into the American Canyon’s city sewage. As a result of the investigation, a bottling plant owned by Coca-Cola agreed to pay $7.6 million for alleged the violations.

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Procon, the numbers mentioned by Valleybear nave been confirmed by invioces from the Wallace Group to the Sanitation District.

Not to defend Wallace, but he and the Board do not have direct knowledge of the daily operations at the plant. This is why they hire Licensed Operators as those in charge. The Operators are trusted to perform their duties, which include producing effluent that meets or exceeds the required standards set forth by the operating permit for the plant. These Operators take exams to prove their knowledge of the procedures for wastewater treatment, and are expected to follow a code-of-conduct, which requires the Operator to protect the Environment. My point? The Operators, more specifically the supervising or Lead Operator, should be the ones held responsible for their actions.

if you had read the article, you would see that Ms. Douglas reported to Wallace and “nothing changed”.

also, as per Ms. Douglas’ quoted statement, it was the plant superintendant, who is the Chief Plant Operator, answerable for plant operations to WQCB, that told her to dump the sample.

Regardless, I think your missing the point. It’s the Superintendent that should be held responsible.

Thanks for the excellent article about the whistleblower fired for allegedly refusing to discard a sample of dirty water and not record the results of the lab test. Here are my questions which I would like answered in a follow-up article: Were the test results ever logged or recorded with the lab who conducted the test? If so, how can I get a copy of that public record? For that purpose, please identify by name the specific lab which is the subject of the article. Identify with specificity, the name of the government “district” of which John Wallace is an administrator. Which waste water treatement plant are you referring to? And the final question is, why is it such common practice in San Luis Obispo County to vilify educated, trained female professionals with the moral courage to be “insubordinate” in the face of criminal behavior by their male bosses? The letter of the California Water Quality Control laws and regulations should dictate her work procedures, and in such a way as to protect the health of all of us. I toast our “Whistleblower” with a clean(?) glass of H2O right out of my tap.

Good luck getting public records from Mike Seitz, the SSLOCSD attorney. If you read the companion article to the tribune story, you will see that another person had to jump through all kinds of hoops to get the “public records”. According to Ms. Douglas, tests were run at the SSLOCSD plant lab until she started raising questions. As per the very first sentence in this article, the “district” is the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District. As far as vilifying females in this county, why don’t you address that question to Tony Ferrara, Bill Nicols and Vern Dahl. These board members voted to “defund” the lab position in order to “save money” instead of laying off the janitor, (who makes only $200/month less than the lab tech). There was also no attempt to reducde the budget for District Administrator, John Wallace, which went from $80,000 in the 2009/2010 budget to $150,000 in the 2010/2011 budget. The 2010/2011 budget took effect 07/01/10.

Oto, if I’m understanding your question right, the lab they are going to use now is Abalone Coast here in SLO.

John Wallace is the Administrator for the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District, and it is that same treatment plant we are refering to.

It’s in Oceano, right there between the Pismo dunes and the Oceano airport.

As for the public records (this is pretty complicated, so hold on to your hat): the first thing you need to understand is that in addition to the NPDES permit, the plant also needs to follow the regulations of the Ocean Plan ( one of which requires that the District use a test methods which would allow them to set the bacteriological tests so they will be able to detect up to 16,000 organisms per a certain amount of water. (See, it’s complicated.) But because the district thinks the rules don’t apply to them, they disregarded this regulation and set the tests to test up to 1,600 organisms per that same amount of water. Which is especially a problem when you realize that the District discharge limit is 2000. If you look at the records before late-May 2009 the highest result the district ever reported was “>1600.” (Getting the District to make that change was a huge victory for the lab tech and compliance.) I overheard the lab tech tell a reporter at the Board meeting that night that Appleton told her NOT to use the higher detection limit because he liked the fact that if they reported a bacteria result of “>1600” the regional board couldn’t prove it was a violation of the “2000 organism” limit.

Getting back to your question though: Ask to see a copy of the “April 2009 Self Monitoring Report,” including the cover letter. It will show the result and Appleton’s “discussion” of the plant’s inability to tell if it’s a violation or not. You’ll notice it says they had adopted the higher detection limit after the psuedoviolation. Then if you want a REAL laugh, ask for a copy of the May ’09 report in which they have another pesudoviolation (because they didn’t make the change,) and Appleton AGAIN recycles the same language.


The real question might be why did the Regional Board let them get away with this?

From the comments I’ve read it appears that a lot of people know that this private /public partnership benefits the Wallace Group at the expense of the public. So why have people in the know let this go on for so long or are you all just whiners?

Devina Douglas is an accomplished water quality professional. Her professional record

illustrates this. She was hired because she is a professional, her success with prosecuting Coca Cola’s illegal activities, her peer awarded accolades, a college degree and not one but two highly coveted California and Federally recognized laboratory and pretreatment professional credentials. She only becomes a “problem” when she catches the District with their collective pants down. If she was surrounded by dedicated water quality professionals and informed Board members, they would have supported her revelations of illegal activity and implemented corrective actions immediately too protect both environmental and human health resources. But no, Wallace( who has a vested interest to continue with his hillbilly ways and no level of accountability) and Jeff Appleton turned blind eyes (a class 3 felony) on their illegal activities and subsequently put up a smoke screen diversion saying that instead of illegal plant activities and conflict of interest being the issue…it was “Devina” that was the issue. The reasoning being… if they get rid of her, there are no longer any checks and balances in place and no level of accountability. So with her keen eye and her expertise eliminated, (and hence a threat neutralized) the sewer plant will continue to carry on as they have in the past and pollute our local waters. In addition, someone needs to further explore the cozy relationship with Wallace Group as the District Administrator AND a Board member…you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours kind of relationship. Just saying.

It was noted above that Ms. Douglas has won awards for her work. I worked in NorCal and I can verify that information. Presented in early 2010, Ms. Douglas was named the Lab Analyst of the Year for 2009 by the California Water Environmental Association. Later, she won a 2010 National award from the Water Environmental Federation for her achievements in Laboratory Excellence. Given those awards and her investigatory work leading to the Coke violations, her integrity seems unquestionable. From the stories about the violations, it would appear that Ms. Douglas was told to “go along to get along” and she refused to overlook poor practices at the South County plant. Kudos and praise for Ms. Douglas seem appropriate. There should also be a deep-reaching investigation of the District’s practices, with criminal and civil charges filed if wrong-doing is found there. Are our elected officials up to it? It is shameful that an individual is fired for doing the right thing and refusing to do the wrong things.