State Ecology IDs ‘egregious’ wastewater violations in Ilwaco

Tim Pfeifer took over as Ilwaco's plant manager late last year. When the time comes, Pfeifer wants to be proud to hand the keys to the next manager, knowing he's leaving the plant better than he found it. “I'll be here until I get this figured out,” he said.

ILWACO — The city’s former wastewater treatment manager is facing possible criminal charges. He is likely to lose his certification to operate a plant anywhere in Washington for a while.

Warren M. Hazen was “grossly negligent” in running the Ilwaco utility for at least four years before the mayor ousted him from the job in 2015, state investigators said.

After completing its investigation of Ilwaco, the Department of Ecology recommended the “worst it can do” to an operator. The state agency wants to revoke Hazen’s operator certification for five years to stop him from “mishandling” another plant.

His suspension takes effect by 5 p.m. on May 24, if he doesn’t ask for an appeal.

Ecology launched its probe at the plant about a month after the city dismissed Hazen and its other operator, David M. Gustafson. The investigation found that between 2012 and 2015, the father and son-in-law falsified reports, failed to conduct required tests and violated discharge permits. They breached legally mandated operations standards and produced invalid lab results by improperly handling supplies.

“These are egregious violations,” Ecology spokesman Dave Bennett said. “We take this very seriously.”

To pursue possible criminal charges the state Attorney General’s Office would need to ask for Pacific County Prosecutor Mark McClain’s permission to take the case.

“No such request had been made at this point and we have not received any investigation reports about this matter,” McClain said late Monday afternoon.

State attorneys do not comment on potential cases, Dan Jackson, a spokesman for the AGO said.

In Washington, the law applies not only to direct hazards to human health or the environment, but also “paperwork” problems, such as knowingly filing inaccurate information with the government — a felony — or defrauding a public utility, a crime that can bring misdemeanor or felony charges. Falsifying records is punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.

For now, Hazen, 55, faces civil penalties. As of press time on May 23, he had not asked for an appeal of the decision to revoke his certification.

Gustafson, 32, is now red-flagged in Ecology’s computer system. No action has been taken against his operator certificate because, unlike Hazen, he has not tried to renew it, officials said.

Hazen and Gustafson did not answer calls for comment on this story.

The mayor, Mike Cassinelli, was tight-lipped about doling out the pink slips, too. Last Friday, he said he’s still unsure of how much he can say about the September 2015 split without the city getting saddled with a lawsuit.

“This is an at-will state and I let them go at-will,” Cassinelli said.

When pressed, the mayor offered more.

“You can say I smelt something,” he said.

Cassinelli told state regulators Hazen and Gustafson were dismissed for “reasons other than operating issues,” but didn’t provide specifics, said Pat Bailey, an Ecology compliance specialist who investigated the Ilwaco plant.

After letting the operators go, the city reported to Ecology it had contracted with an engineering and consulting firm to run the plant. Gray & Osborne charged the city $105.45 an hour.

The operator arrived at the plant to find it in disarray, Bailey said. She couldn’t find the log book plant operators use to document daily operations, problems and performance.

Hazen had apparently been using a large desk calendar to track “minimal information.” But, Bailey said, it was not what she expected to see in a log book.

Hazen and Gustafson had open, undated containers of ammonia solution that were being stored improperly around the plant. The solution must be handled correctly to get accurate results for routine, twice-monthly tests Ecology requires for the plant’s permit, Bailey said.

She reviewed city invoices for purchases made for the plant from January 2012 to June 2015. Her analysis showed Hazen and Gustafson did not have enough ammonia solution to conduct required tests. Despite that, they continued reporting results to the state.

“All the numbers were either made up or invalid,” Bailey said.

Bailey reviewed data on the discharge monitoring reports Hazen submitted from December 2014 to October 2015. She found a pattern of pH levels being consistently reported at seven standard units, which is within state-set guideline of six to nine. It was the unusual regularity of the levels through the year that raised red flags for Bailey.

She had a computer specialist recover data recorded on a plant meter. She confirmed the numbers on it were different from the ones Hazen reported to the state. Hazen also provided data on days when the meter was not turned on.

During an interview with Ecology last July, Hazen admitted the meter was the only one he and Gustafson used to do those tests.

Tim Pfeifer took over as Ilwaco’s plant manager late last year. The job pays about $54,170 a year. It comes with irregular hours, extra overtime shifts and constant inconveniences.

“When I came here, I inherited a plant that was in dire need of some maintenance,” Pfeifer said, as he got ready on Friday afternoon for a weekend-long cleanup of the plant’s concrete tanks. “I felt like I was under a microscope. … Probably a third of this place still isn’t running.”

When the time comes, Pfeifer wants to be proud to hand the keys to the next manager, knowing he’s leaving the plant better than he found it. Fortunately, for now, he’s used to working around things that break.

“I’ll be here until I get this figured out,” Pfeifer said.

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