Getting Flushed

Why was a whistleblower at the water plant suspended?



A Missoula city employee is accusing his superiors and the City of Missoula of retaliating against him and fellow employees for their involvement in a report that sheds light on alleged abuses and misconduct at the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Howard Alger, who has worked as an operator at the Missoula plant for the last five years, says that he was suspended without pay for two 10-hour shifts and reassigned to a job away from the plant just days after that report was made public. He and others also claim that the city has taken steps to restrict access to documents related to the plant’s operations and made it more difficult for the public to access the facility.

But city officials, including Public Works Director Bruce Bender and Mayor Mike Kadas, deny that any harassment or retaliation has occurred, saying that whatever disciplinary actions were taken against Alger were completely unrelated to the report. Moreover, they say that the city recently adopted a new public document retrieval policy that had nothing to do with the controversy surrounding the waste treatment plant.

The so-called “white paper,” released Oct. 5 by the national public watchdog group PEER—Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility—was written anonymously by current and former plant employees and alleges improprieties at the plant, including frequent system failures, falsified reports, improper maintenance techniques, unreported groundwater contamination and other practices that violate state and federal laws.

In written responses, both the City of Missoula and the Missoula City/County Health Department acknowledge that problems have existed at the plant, some of which require further investigation, but they say that much of the white paper is inaccurate, outdated, taken out of context, or outright false. Moreover, some city officials, including wastewater division superintendent Starr Sullivan, have suggested that the white paper was the work of disgruntled employees who have contributed to the plant’s “stressful work environment.”

Under the federal Clean Water Act, employees who report violations of clean water standards are protected from retaliation by the federal “whistleblower” law.

“All in all, Howard [Alger] is taking the brunt of the city’s retaliation here,” says Kevin Keenan, a former permit compliance officer with the state Department of Environmental Quality who now works for PEER in Helena. “I don’t think a reasonable person looking at the time frames would come to any other conclusion but that the city, at minimum, has decided to resolve some of this white paper controversy by getting Howard out of a position where he can on a daily basis monitor the city’s action.”

Admittedly, accusations of retaliation pose a difficult Catch-22 for supervisors and the administration to answer, since they are forbidden to discuss personnel matters due to city policies, collective bargaining agreements and state law.

However, Bender says that “the [disciplinary] action had nothing to do with the white paper. It was action that was particular to the performance of [Alger’s] job.”

“The perception of it is obviously problematic,” says Bender. “I’d like to be able to talk about it because it’s problematic for us too, but we have to protect his rights as an employee.”

Bender admits that in the last two months plant managers have made some “clarifications” to their policies regarding weekend plant tours, as well as posted new signs about which areas the public may or may not access. But these changes, he says, were done mostly for safety reasons.

Since the white paper’s release, Alger says that he has been reassigned to a job performing sewer line maintenance, requiring him to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL), which he does not have. He has been notified that he will be suspended again without pay if he fails to obtain a CDL—at his own expense—by Dec. 21. Alger claims that such harassment is not unique to him, but reflects a pattern of retribution against whistleblowers that has existed for years.

Patrick Sam Pettigrew, a former Missoula plant operator from February 1988 through February 1991 who now runs two wastewater treatment plants for the City of Seattle, says that he experienced similar harassment when he worked there.

“Through working in the lab in Missoula I recognized the data I was producing showed the plant was out of compliance, yet those responsible for reporting to the State always seemed to report in compliance,” Pettigrew writes in a Dec. 7, 2000 letter to Keenan.

“Management tended not to care to find out how much sludge went to storm drains and to the river, and if employees brought up such matters they were reprimanded, harassed or required to do ‘nasty’ jobs around the treatment plant and lift stations,” he writes. “Many good operators ended up doing sewer line maintenance … for extended periods of time because they spoke up about treatment plant operational problems and compliance issues.”

Pettigrew says that he, too, was suspended without pay for a total of eight days because supervisors accused him of “skirting the chain of command and unethical conduct as an employee.” He fought those suspensions through the union’s grievance procedures and subsequently received all his lost back pay and the removal of written reprimands from his personnel files. Pettigrew summarizes his experiences at the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant as “an exercise in futility.”

Alger’s grievance is currently under review by the union. A report by the three-member committee appointed by the mayor to investigate the white paper allegations is expected to be out by the end of January.

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