Council blames employee for environmental violations

Sara  Sneath By Sara Sneath

April 8, 2014 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated April 8, 2014 at 11:09 p.m.

REFUGIO - After receiving 18 potential penalties from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for its wastewater treatment facility, City Council members terminated the employee they think is partially responsible.

The treated waste does not pose a health concern, said wastewater supervisor Gabriel Morales.

The city was fined $11,050 by the commission in February and continues to rack up penalties for problems with its wastewater treatment facility. But Mayor Joey Heard says the city has a bigger problem because of mismanagement by the city employee.

Elston Howard Jones, an employee in charge of monitoring the treatment of wastewater, was put on administrative leave April 1.

Morales, his supervisor, asked for his termination at a City Council meeting Tuesday night. He said Jones falsified discharge monitoring reports, a weekly reading of the amount of oxygen in the processing of sludge. The amount of oxygen is an indication that the sludge is being properly aerated, which is necessary to keep good bacteria alive and eating waste during the treatment process.

During a commission inspection, Jones told the inspecting officer that he was making up the readings, Morales said.

"I'm just taking orders from my supervisor," Jones told the council members.

Jones was hired Nov. 19, 2012. Over the course of his employment, he's had four supervisors. Jones said the meter he used to take readings of oxygen in the sludge has been broken for more than six months.

When he approached a previous supervisor about the broken meter, he was told to falsify the reports, Jones told council members.

"Yeah, there's some fault that falls on me, but I'm not going to accept the whole barrel of it," Jones said.

Among the potential violations, a TCEQ investigator wrote that the town of Refugio "failed to properly operate the plant," "falsified the discharge monitoring reports for dissolved oxygen" and "failed to prevent the discharge of solids at the outfall."

While some of the potential violations were because of outdated equipment, Morales said several were the result of negligence by Jones. Among the potential violations, the commission found that solid waste was bypassing the facility's processing and entering into Dry Creek. The waste is currently being cleaned up and is not a hazard to residents because they do not swim in the creek, Morales said.

"I really don't want to do this, but I'm going to have to," Councilman Leonard "Lenny" Anzaldua said when he voted to terminate Jones. "It's not because of who you are but because of where we are today. I know we told you to do what your supervisor says. I know we told you to do what is best for the city. And this many write-ups, I don't think that's what is best for the city."

Councilman Dale Skrobarcek and Councilwoman Karen Watts also voted to terminate Jones. Councilman Frank Hosey and Councilwoman Wanda Dukes abstained from the vote.

TCEQ's investigation resulted in a list of 18 potential violations by the city on April 1. The potential violations will likely result in a six-figure fine, Heard said.



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