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.