Rainier city officials have made a deal to fund a community development project in the Fox Creek area, thereby significantly reducing a fine for past sewer plant violations.
At the Dec. 3 meeting of the Rainier City Council, a motion passed to pay the Columbia County Soil and Water Conservation District $18,960 for restoration in the form of removing invasive plants in the Fox Creek area and replanting native species. That leaves the City of Rainier responsible for a $4,740 civil penalty from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
“It’s nice to be able to turn a bad past employee situation into something positive,” Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole said. Council President Sloan Nelson expressed approval for the project as well, adding that the Friends of Fox Creek environmental group should be included as the project moves forward.
DEQ initially issued a civil penalty of $23,700 to the City of Rainier in June of this year. The agency said Rainier Waste Water Treatment Plant discharged raw sewage to the Columbia River on 36 occasions in 2017 and 2018, failing to notify the DEQ of many of those sewage overflows, and also failing to properly report results of water quality monitoring.
DEQ said sewer plant staff submitted false reports that were identical to previous data collected at the plant, claiming doctored records were found in June and September of 2013, as well as March and July of 2014. Record-keeping gaps were found from 2014 to 2017.
“Given the variability in untreated wastewater and treatment processes, the probability that the treatment plant had identical monitoring results is infinitesimal,” DEQ Manager of Compliance and Enforcement Kieran O'Donnell said when the penalty was issued.
Failure to monitor to the system was also alleged. The agency said monitoring devices were not working or disconnected, which allowed for sewer overflows that went “unreported and unaddressed.” Turbidity levels also went without being monitored, DEQ claimed, also noting total suspended solids levels allegedly were more than double during one week in July of 2017.
Another factor regarding data was a computer that went missing back in May of 2017. Rainier Police Department received word that the computer could have been stolen and the case was transferred to Oregon State Police (OSP). A letter from OSP told the City of Rainier that an active investigation was moved to the Columbia County District Attorney’s office.
DEQ said raw sewage poses a substantial risk to human health and is a harmful water pollutant, adding that the agency requires the city to monitor its wastewater, maintain records and report sewage overflows to protect public health and the environment.
After the fine was first announced, Cole issued a statement on social media addressing the environmental violations. He said the city was discussing appeal options with its attorney, adding that most of the DEQ conclusions involved “an employee falsifying documentation and not doing their job.”
“We were actually made aware of allegations in May of 2017; at that time, we immediately hired an independent wastewater consultant to investigate the allegations,” Cole wrote in the statement. “Waste water violations are very serious, and operators can even be held criminally liable.”
“The employee that was working for us during the ‘wrongdoings’ is no longer working for the City of Rainier,” he wrote. “Criminal results upon the past employee may still happen. It is my understanding that criminal investigations may take anywhere between two and five years.”
Cole also wrote that he was mad, that he hated being lied to, and that the citizens of Rainier put their trust in a person who was certified to run a waste water plant. He called for the employee who committed the violations to pay the penalty instead of the City.
In January of 2018, Dan Foultner resigned as Rainier Public Works supervisor just a few days before the City was expected to answer the allegations of sewer plant operating violations. Foultner had been on paid administrative leave since November of 2017 as the city investigated issues involving his public works duties.
The investigation followed the discovery of improper operations at the Rainier Waste Water Treatment Plant. The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division conducted an inspection of the sewer plant after an anonymous complaint was filed in April of 2017. Rainier was cited for six “serious” violations and two “other than serious” violations.
An investigation that was completed in July of 2017 by SL Environmental Consulting, an independent third party hired by the city, said the plant had not had “adequate operations and maintenance from 2013 to present” and revealed considerable flaws in data upkeep.
Lawrence found the plant needed “significant housekeeping,” noting buildups of solid waste, grass growing in the system and poor record keeping. Vern Ressler, the plant’s operator, resigned shortly after the investigation was completed. Sue Lawrence, the consultant, would later be hired as the interim and then permanent Rainier Public Works director.
During the public works report portion of the Dec. 3 council meeting, Lawrence was complimented by the mayor and council members on the pace and quality of her work since taking over the department.