El Reno water treatment plant manager gets two-year probation and $10,000 fine in federal court
Yesterday, Kenneth Fulton, of Bartlesville, was sentenced after pleading guilty to knowingly falsifying, tampering with, and rendering inaccurate, a monitoring device and method required to be maintained under the Clean Water Act, announced Robert J. Troester, United States Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma,
On March 24, 2021, Fulton was charged by Information with violating the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act was enacted by Congress to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological quality of the Nation’s waters.
In addition, the Clean Water Act was enacted to prevent, reduce and eliminate water pollution in the United States and to conserve the waters of the United States for the protection and propagation of fish and aquatic life and wildlife, for recreational purposes, and for the use of such waters for public drinking water, agricultural, and industrial purposes.
The Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of any pollutant by any person from a point source into navigable waters except in compliance with a permit issued under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System ("NPDES") by the United States Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") or a state approved by the EPA to administer the NPDES program.
NPDES permits include conditions that will ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act, such as effluent limitations, water-quality standards, and monitoring and reporting requirements. The Clean Water Act’s permitting system requires individuals and companies that have been issued NPDES permits to self-monitor and self-report whether their discharges comply with pollution limits set forth in their permits.
Permit holders must regularly collect discharge samples and test those samples for pollutants that are covered by the permits. The results of these tests must be reported by the permit holder to the EPA and/or delegated state regulatory agency on a routine basis.
In 1996, the EPA delegated authority to administer and enforce the NPDES program to the State of Oklahoma. Pursuant to that delegated authority, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality ("DEQ") issued a permit to the City of El Reno in 2015 that authorized the El Reno Wastewater Treatment Plant ("WWTP") to discharge properly treated municipal and industrial wastewater into the North Canadian River, a water of the United States.
The permit set limits upon the levels of concentration for various pollutants being discharged into the North Canadian River, including total suspended solids, ammonia, and E. coli, which are “pollutants” within the meaning of the Clean Water Act. The permit also established specific monitoring requirements for each pollutant.
In 2017, the City of El Reno hired Veolia North America, LLC ("Veolia") to operate the El Reno WWTP. Fulton was employed by Veolia as the Project Manager of the El Reno WWTP. His duties included overall management and supervision of the operations at the El Reno WWTP.
Fulton admitted that between September 2019 and February 2020, he employed fraudulent testing and reporting procedures at the El Reno WWTP that were designed to deceive the EPA and the Oklahoma DEQ.
Specifically, Fulton would collect grab (individual) samples of treated wastewater from near the El Reno WWTP effluent discharge point to have the wastewater analyzed for the presence of E. coli. Fulton would mix the grab sample with a bleach/water mixture and then let the mixture sit for longer than the maximum holding time to allow the bleach to effectively kill off or significantly reduce the amount of E. coli present in the sample.
Fulton would then pour out half of the contents of the bleached and diluted wastewater sample before adding deionized water to help neutralize the sample and hide the presence of bleach.
Fulton then transferred the sample contents into an official plastic container provided by the certified laboratory. Fulton would then seal the container and provide it to the laboratory for analysis.
Fulton submitted the fraudulent samples to the laboratory knowing that the laboratory would only detect levels of E. coli well below the approved limits in the permit. Fulton would then report the laboratory results to the EPA and the Oklahoma DEQ on the false premise that the test results were representative of the El Reno WWTP’s treated wastewater with respect to E.coli.
At yesterday’s hearing, United States District Judge Charles Goodwin sentenced Fulton to 2 years of probation and a $10,000 fine.
"Cutting corners and falsifying tests potentially exposed citizens and the environment to harmful contaminants," said U.S. Attorney Troester. "This case should remind all who may be involved in treating wastewater that disregarding the Clean Water Act and federal environmental laws can result in serious consequences. I commend the investigation by the Oklahoma Environmental Crimes Task Force, including the EPA Criminal Investigation Division and the Oklahoma DEQ Criminal Investigation Unit, and the entire prosecution team for their work here."
"The defendant’s willful acts of falsifying required effluent samples and the associated releases of untested effluent into the North Canadian River placed both the environment and local community water systems at risk of contamination," said Todd "Tony" Adams, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the EPA’s Southwest Office criminal enforcement program. "EPA and its state partners are committed to holding accountable companies and individuals that place communities and the environment at risk."
"The Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act rely on self-monitoring and self-reporting in order to protect our water resources. Individuals who tamper with the process potentially jeopardize public health and erode trust in our system. It is imperative that those who would take such actions be held accountable," said Oklahoma DEQ Executive Director Scott Thompson.
This investigation was conducted by the Oklahoma Environmental Crimes Task Force, which includes the EPA Criminal Investigation Division and the Oklahoma DEQ Criminal Investigation Unit. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Brown.