Lawrence Fined Nearly $50K for Failing to Test Drinking Water for Ecoli
By: Tom Duggan – July, 2009
Documents obtained by The Valley Patriot last month revealed that operators at the City of Lawrence’s brand new $26 million water treatment facility failed to test the city’s drinking water for a bacteria called E.coli from July 2008 to February 2009. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) requires monthly testing for E.coli which can cause sickness if consumed.
This is the second time in less than a year that the MassDEP fined Lawrence for failing to do mandatory testing.
In October of last year the state fined Lawrence $5,000 for failing to test for chlorite in the drinking water and ordered the city to fix a host of mechanical, maintenance and procedural problems at the facility.
In February 2009, MassDEP warned Lawrence officials that the list of violations at the water plant from that October fine had not been addressed. As the result of operators at the plant failing to address those issues, the state hit Lawrence with $47,750 in penalties.
The 13 page Consent Order obtained by the Valley Patriot and signed by Lawrence Mayor Mike Sullivan lists a host of safety hazards at the plant that city officials have refused to resolve, such as: failing to test for Cryptosporidium, failing to follow proper safety procedures, corrosion in the chemical feed room, failing to comply with previous warnings and consent orders, failure to have adequate maintenance schedules, failing to notify DEP of testing and operational inspections, and failing to comply with the requirements of a February 2008 notice of non-compliance.
Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan says that the fine and the conditions leading up to it are “distressing.”
Sullivan also said that the city council’s refusal to take action on a contract for the private firm Woodward and Curran (to run the plant) has created “a very dangerous situation with Lawrence’s drinking water.”
Tennis Lilly who serves as the chairman of the city’s conservation commission said that he was outraged by the lack of competence at the water plant and added that, as a environmental activist and private citizen he demands accountability from the city.
“In my interactions with water department employees I’ve always found them to be hard working and competent. I’m shocked,” Lilly said. “As one of the people who fought to prevent privatization, it’s infuriating to see this gross failure of leadership and competence. It’s almost as if someone is intentionally sabotaging the water department to set the stage for privatization.”
Lilly added, “If our water isn’t being tested regularly, how can we, as citizens, have confidence that our water is safe to drink? We did this for decades. We used to set the standard for water quality and now we look like a bunch of idiots. What happened? We need to take our water back and demand accountability from the city and get this resolved as soon as possible. What really bothers me now is that I can’t trust the water that is coming out of the tap. That’s not a position any resident of any community should be in.”
Council Inaction Jeopardizes Public Health
“Once again we have a DEP fine that was based on the lack of testing for an environmental hazard,” Sullivan said. “This time it was their failure to test for E. coli. Now that’s very serious. When I saw the minutes [written record] of the DEP meeting where Mr. Mark Griffen (the plant operator for the city) and Frank McCann (the DPW Director) admitted to every single item in the DEP fine … I was stunned,” he said in frustration.
“This wasn’t a situation where the city missed one or two tests, they missed 18 tests. That’s 18 months where drinking water went out to the people of Lawrence without any testing at all for E. coli. I’m extremely alarmed because that could have led to a drinking water hazard for the residents of this City and, quite frankly, it could have led to thousands of people getting very sick. Talk about sick, I’m sick just thinking about it. This is completely unacceptable.”
Lawrence City Attorney Charlie Boddy said that the issue of non-testing and the other safety violations found by MassDEP need to be addressed immediately, “especially given that it’s the second fine in less than a year.” Boddy explained that despite the presence of the private contracting firm Woodward and Curran operating the plant, it is the city’s responsibility to do testing and report those mandatory tests to the MassDEP.
“We’re in a difficult situation because there are issues with regard to supervisory oversight at the water treatment plant,” Boddy said.
“Those issues will be resolved once we get a long-term contract in place. But absent a long-term contract, those issues will remain because Woodward and Curran is unwilling to take responsibility for these testing issues that they are not obligated to do. They are working on a temporary contract and as long as they are, they are not obligated to do water testing or provide oversight. That responsibility falls on the city. Woodward is not being compensated for these responsibilities and they won’t be. Not until they have a contract that clearly spells out those testing responsibilities at the plant.”
In the mean time, the Lawrence City Council has refused to ratify a long-term contract with Woodward and Curran despite several attempts by the mayor to move the management of the water treatment facility from the city to the private firm.
“Because of their inaction we have really been in limbo on this,” Sullivan said. “Every day that Woodward is working without a contract these safety issues and violations are going to continue.”
Sullivan said that he had tried several times to get the council to approve a contract for Woodward and Curran to ensure that the plant was being run properly and that drinking water was safe. “But they simply refused to do that. In fact, they have been sitting on this issue for a very long time and they won’t even bring it up for discussion. So, while they sit on their hands and play politics, we don’t get a resolution to these very serious issues.”
Failing to Correct Ongoing Safety hazards
In October 2008, MassDEP fined the City of Lawrence $5,750 after finding that operators at the water treatment facility failed to test the drinking water for a chemical called chlorite. The (DEP) requires that the city test for the chemical each month under the Clean Water Act.
Within two days of being notified of the fine, Lawrence City Attorney Charles Boddy called for an “investigation into who is responsible for these continuing violations.” Boddy also called for disciplinary action against any city employee responsible for the failure to comply with State mandated water testing, demanding “action must be taken to prevent any further violations.”
No disciplinary action has ever been taken against any of the city employees responsible for failing to do the mandatory testing and to date, no employee has been held accountable for “continuing violations” at the plant. Under Lawrence’s City Charter, the water department falls under the responsibility of the Department of Public Works (DPW). Frank McCann is the DPW Director.
Phantom Workers, Real Pay
Mayor Sullivan had to layoff eight workers from the water treatment plant last year but was forced to bring them back because of union contract issues. The workers were initially replaced by the private firm of Woodward and Curran whose workers are now performing the duties that city workers used to be tasked with. But after the city was ordered to bring them back to work, Sullivan said they returned to the facility but have no job duties.
“Yeah, I hired Woodward and Curran to run the plant and I did lay off the eight people who used to do that work. There were serious issues with the way things were being run, some of the city workers were not properly certified, plus we had a million dollar deficit in the water department’s budget,” Sullivan explained. “I am not going to lay off police or teachers to make up for the mismanagement of the water treatment plant. I’m gong to lay off the people who were not doing their jobs, or not doing them right.”
“But, by union contract we had to bring them back, even though Woodward had already replaced them. So now you tell me how crazy this is: we have eight city employees that are now showing up for work everyday and they have no job duties because the workers at Woodward and Curran are doing those jobs. I don’t know what they are doing when they come to work but one of the things they are not doing is testing the drinking water to ensure the safety of the people of Lawrence. They are solely responsible for doing that and they failed to do it. Now we have to pay fines at a time when we are financially strapped.”
Asked who was directly responsible for making sure the testing was done on time and reported to the DEP, Sullivan said it was the plant supervisor and DPW Director, Frank McCann.
“The responsibility falls directly on the plant operator, Mr. Griffen and his supervisor Frank McCann,” the Mayor said angrily.
“They are the ones that were at the meeting with DEP. They are the ones who admitted there was an error made for 18 months and that all these violations are being ignored. They are legally responsible for making sure that testing gets done and the violations be addressed. But, DPW Director Frank McCann is protected by the city council, so it doesn’t really matter whether or not he fulfills his responsibility to supervise Mr. Griffen at the facility; he knows he is untouchable because of his friends on the city council.”
Sullivan said that in any other city both McCann and Griffen would be out of a job but added “here in Lawrence the only thing that matters is how many fund raisers you show up for when city councilors come up for election. Apparently the safety of our drinking water is not quite at the top of their priority list.”
A Longer History of Water Problems
In October 2007 the state fined the city $39,500 for inadequate security procedures, noncompliance with the plant’s disinfecting process, violating sampling protocols and inadequate turbidity requirements.
An investigation by state officials revealed that “from April 4, 2007 through April 17, 2007 the new plant was operated without any chlorine dioxide or chlorite testing equipment and the required daily samples for chlorine dioxide and chlorite were not taken.”
In February 2008 the city and MassDEP entered into a consent decree whereby MassDEP would reduce the $39,500 fine to $19,500. In return, the city agreed to beef up security at the plant, provide an updated operations plan and make sure all chlorine dioxide systems were working properly. To date, most of those issues have not been resolved.
The DEP originally fined the city $100,000 for failure to test for E. coli but reduced the fine to $47,750. According to the MassDEP Order of Non-Compliance, the city was only ordered to pay $25,000 of the fine. MassDEP waived $22,750 on the condition that the plant be brought up to compliance and city officials correct all present and previous violations, something Mayor Sullivan says is going to be very difficult to do unless the council passes a contract for Woodward and Curran.
“I’m not holding my breath that the city council is just going to wake up tomorrow and say, ‘ok, let’s start doing our job now, let’s get moving on this water issue.’ I just don’t see that happening so, in order to fix the situation I have come up with a creative way to fix this situation.
Sullivan’s Creative Solution
Mayor Sullivan said he expects that the city workers in charge of rectifying safety hazards will continue to ignore the latest fines by the MassDEP.
“If I don’t take some kind of action on this, someone is going to get sick or worse. I need to make sure there is someone there to supervise the testing and make sure safety issues at the plant are no longer ignored. The only way the city can climb out of the mounting violations and continued lack of accountability is to bring in someone from the outside who can be the point person between MassDEP and the city.”
Sullivan said he is hiring former Lawrence resident Geoff Fulgione to oversee the city’s deficiencies in the management of the water treatment facility.
“Mr. Fulgione is very well respected in the community. He is a former Highway Department person, a former environmentalist who has his own business and his responsibilities would be three-fold:
First: To hold people accountable within the management of the water treatment plant.
Second: To work together with EPA and with DEP to satisfy any requests they might have going forward.
And third: To coordinate with the budget and finance director on figuring out: what the financial shortfall in the water department is and how much is real. Also, what the revenue projections are and what the new water rates need to be in order to fix the problems created by the council’s inaction.”
Increased Water Rates
“I know some people think that this is just a small fine and the impact is not really significant, but it is. If anyone thinks there isn’t going to be a price to pay for all this mismanagement, besides the public’s health being put at risk, they are dead wrong. Before the end of the year the council is going to be faced with a water rate increase for every business and homeowner in the city to make up for the shortfalls in the water department. And the longer they wait to secure the long term management of that facility, the harder it is going to be to catch up on all the fines and maintenance issues building up to being Lawrence into compliance.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, “some kinds of E. coli can cause diarrhea, while others cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses. Still other kinds of E. coli are used as markers for water contamination—so you might hear about E. coli being found in drinking water, which are not themselves harmful, but indicate the water is contaminated. It does get a bit confusing—even to microbiologists.”
Mayor Sullivan said that there is no evidence anyone has been sick from Lawrence’s drinking water and stressed that “at this time we do believe the water is safe to drink, what is most alarming is the question of what else isn’t being done over there and what future problems are going to arise from this.”