State finds fraud and deception at sanitation plant
January 27, 2011
After a lengthy investigation, the State Water Resource Control Board has determined that the director of the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District operated the plant “using fraud and deception,” according to a letter of proposed disciplinary action.
Specifically, the state’s investigation revealed that plant manager Jeff Appleton instructed staff to manipulate effluent release numbers in order to make it appear the plant was operating in compliance with pollution and discharge requirements. The state is proposing Appleton’s plant operator certificate be downgraded, which would make him ineligible to manage the plant.
Four of the plant’s six operations employees told the state that Appleton either asked staff to throw away poor samples or had written policies prohibiting testing samples at times they were likely to be out of compliance.
Appleton declined to respond the state’s allegations.
John Wallace is the chief administrator of the district, which provides services to about 38,000 customers. He is also owner and president of the Wallace Group, a private engineering consulting firm located in San Luis Obispo that receives about $80,000 a month for plant administration and engineering services.
Plant supervisor Scott Mascolo and former laboratory technician Devina Douglas said they told Wallace of the plant’s failure to comply with rules regarding updating operating manuals, not taking gifts from venders and manipulating testing more than a year ago. After Wallace made no changes, both Douglas and Mascolo reported the alleged abuses to state regulators.
Douglas was let go not long after she informed regulators she had been told to manipulate samplings. She filed a lawsuit against the district on January 11.
Mascolo has been on paid administrative leave for over a year. He is battling the district’s attempts to fire him.
At the same time, the district, an agency which provides sewer services to Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and the unincorporated town of Oceano, has come under fire for allegedly under-reporting the amount of raw sewage spilled during heavy December rainstorms.
Two of the Sanitation board members have helped keep the public in the dark by not informing the city councils they represent about troubles at the plant. Bill Nichols, a Grover Beach councilman, sat in while investigators interviewed Appleton in June. However, Nichols did not report any of the districts problems to the council and when he gave his report on the district he said things were fine.
Tony Ferrara, Arroyo Grande’s mayor and a sanitation district board member, also failed to mention the district’s pending lawsuits and state investigations when he gave his sanitation district update to the Arroyo Grande City Council.
At a recent sanitation board meeting, Ferrara and Nichols rebuked a suggestion by the board’s third member, Jim Hill, to no longer allow Wallace to serve as the district administrator while his private engineering firm is contracted to do work for the district.