Gary Hallinan admits equipment neglect, illegal sewage dumping in 2015; Barlow calls situation 'pathetic'
OSWEGO — The former superintendent of the Oswego Wastewater Treatment Plant plead guilty in federal court this week to discharging wastewater into Lake Ontario at least three times in 2015.
Gary Hallinan, 61, of Oswego, pleaded guilty in a Syracuse federal court to negligently discharging wastewater from the City of Oswego Wastewater Treatment Plant into Lake Ontario in violation of the Clean Water Act. Federal authorities allege Hallinan discharged water from the city’s treatment plant into the lake on three dates between March and June of 2015.
According to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Hallinan’s guilty plea is an admission that in December 2014, while superintendent of the wastewater treatment plant, the plant’s centrifuge — an essential piece of equipment to process wastewater and remove untreated or improperly treated sewage — stopped operating. With the centrifuge inoperable, the plant could not properly remove sewage from the wastewater.
Federal authorities say over the next five months, Hallinan failed to take action to remove sewage from the plant’s wastewater and did not report the broken centrifuge to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Mayor Billy Barlow in a statement Friday said it’s “extremely disappointing” to know such negligence took place at the city’s wastewater facilities. Barlow who took office in January 2016, said Hallinan’s employment with the city was terminated December 31, 2015, and it’s “hard to fully comprehend the mentality and logic behind” the former wastewater superintendent’s actions.
Barlow said reflecting on the incident makes him more proud of the city’s investment of nearly $4 million into the wastewater facilities.
“We’ve made wholesale changes to the basic operations of the plant,” the mayor said. “Hallinan’s guilty plea hopefully closes this pathetic chapter of the city wastewater facilities. I hope both the (Environmental Protection Agency) and DEC recognize the level of investment we’ve put into our facilities since taking office and how serious we take our operations as it relates to the environment.”
According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Hallinan’s negligence caused the Oswego Wastewater Treatment Plant to discharge wastewater containing solid sewage, which is a violation of its permit under the Clean Water Act. Authorities say the discharges took place on March 1, June 19 and June 23 in 2015.
The Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters.
The concentration of solid matter in the water discharged into Lake Ontario on June 23, 2015 was roughly 60 times higher than allowed by the plant’s permit, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney.
The Palladium-Times spoke with marine ecology experts about the implications of wastewater dumping on freshwater systems.
Richard Back, a professor of biology at SUNY Oswego, who specializes in aquatic entomology, said cryptosporidiosis and E. coli are diseases that could be brought upon from water contamination.
“We discharge a lot of our waste out to surface water because it conveys it away from the town, but we also take a lot of drinking water from surface water,” Back explained, noting human helath is one of the top concerns.
Aside from the human health implications, Back said wastewater can also be deadly to wildlife.
“A lot of organic material in sewage contains a lot of unprocessed food, and bacteria in the river take that and metabolize it and when they do that they take up all the oxygen in the water,” Back said. “Oxygen isn’t as concentrated in water as it is in the air, so you can actually get water completely without oxygen, and what that does is it kills the fish, so then the fish start to decompose and it gets even worse.”
In August 2015, the state DEC confirmed an investigation into the city’s wastewater treatment plant was underway. Less than a week later, then-Mayor Tom Gillen said an unlicensed overflow appeared to be the target of a state and federal investigation.
“It was an unlicensed overflow, it was a mistake that happened because of human error, but we’re working on figuring how and why this happened and how to make sure it can’t happen again,” Gillen said in September 2015.
At the same time, the EPA confirmed there was an investigation at the facility, but did not provide further details because the investigation was "ongoing."
Hallinan, who for nearly a month could not be reached, told The Palladium-Times in September 2015 the East Side Wastewater Treatment Plant was in need of a new centrifuge due to the age and repair time of the current unit. He said at the time the issue was not due to any human error.
In late September 2015, the council voted to replace the centrifuge after spending more than $115,000 in repairs in less than a year.
“We were well aware that there was an unauthorized spill,” Gillen said when reached Friday. “What we found out is that there was a problem and we had the wrong people in positions and we replaced them.”
Gillen described Hallinan as “a good man,” but said one particular employee under his watch was “problematic.” The former mayor said the city terminated the problematic employee, but ultimately Hallinan was responsible for the plant’s operation.
“It’s a mess and it never should have happened,” Gillen said. “The fundamental fact is we’re responsible for the lake and we took it very seriously and those people that didn’t, we got rid of those people.”
Gillen said DEC officials met with him last summer to review the event and “close the books” on the investigation.
The city ultimately contracted with Camden Group, an independent organization that now oversees the city’s wastewater operations, Gillen said, adding “hopefully things are behind us.”
In terms of wastewater treatment, Back said the CWA mandated treatment plants to carry licences that require discharges to stay under certain limits or frequencies. Plants sometimes exceed those limits, but as soon as it happens are required to report it to regulators.
The CWA also focused on helping smaller plants situated near the Great Lakes’ basins, Back said, noting many of the small plants surrounding the Great Lakes are frequently operating at or near capacity.
“The Clean Water Act really addressed basin-wide a lot of money so the smaller plants could do additional steps in the processing of sewage,” Back said.
Basic conventional treatments of wastewater consists of separting solids, and the CWA required a secondary treatment that involved bacterial metabolises that mimic what would occur in a natural system. The final treatment before water is discharged typically involves chlorine treatments or the usage of ultra violet lighting.
Federal authorities say the charge Hallinan pled guilty to this week carries a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison, a fine of up to $100,000 and a term of supervised release up to one year.
Hallinan is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 24 by United States Magistrate Judge David E. Peebles.
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