This is written in response to the letter "Illegal act taken lightly in Westfield (Sept. 24)." The writer asked why I haven't commented on recent legal issues regarding wastewater overflows into Chautauqua Creek, so I will do that now.
Like the writer, I have a sincere and heartfelt attachment to this community and its people. While I have nothing to hide, and would openly discuss any of this with anyone who asked, I felt that publicly commenting on this situation would only serve to keep this issue in the news.
I do not feel that I have any reason to be ashamed of any of my actions, but this certainly is a "black eye" on Westfield, and I have no desire to further that by saying "my piece," trying to convince people of my intentions or to defend my reputation. My intention is, and always has been, to take any and all actions to ensure proper operation of our wastewater plant and all systems associated with it. When problems occur, my only concerns are the safety and well-being of our employees and residents. During all overflow events, including the one in question, I always acted to do what I could that would result in the least amount of sewage overflowing into the creek.
To clear up any misunderstandings, to my knowledge, "dumping" of raw sewage into Chautauqua Creek has occurred only once. It happened on June 13, 2014. The other incidents that have happened were uncontrolled overflows either caused by high flows or mechanical breakdowns. These overflow events are perfectly legal, provided that state Department of Environmental Conservation is notified, and every effort to mitigate is taken. In my time as chief operator, these procedures were followed each and every time, and the date in question was no exception. Prior to this incident, there was always at least one pump in operation at all times. This pump station was located on Oak Street, less than 5 feet from the stream. When this station overflowed, the wastewater flowed almost directly into Chautauqua Creek. There were two pumps inside this station.
On June 12, 2014, one of the pumps in the station quit working due to an electrical problem. At the time, the other pump was working and maintaining the water level below the overflow point. At around 8 p.m., I got a phone call from our alarm service that the station was overflowing. I immediately went to check the station, and one pump was still showing to be on. The flow was obviously very high judging by how fast it was flowing out of the wet well and into Chautauqua Creek. I immediately reported the overflow to the DEC and Chautauqua County Department of Health, and explained our plans for replacing the pump in the morning because safety concerns prevented repair work beginning until daylight allowed.
The following day, I was travelling with three of our board members to tour the wastewater treatment plant in Ithaca. Our plant personnel are very experienced, and were more than capable of handling the situation. Two other employees from the Public Works Department were coming with the vacuum truck to assist. They were instructed to use the truck to supplement the one working pump to empty the station to the point the broken pump could be removed and replaced.
A few hours later, one of the employees called me to say that the plan of filling the truck and driving it to the wastewater treatment plant to dump wasn't working. By the time they got it emptied and came back, the station had filled back to the level they had started at and resumed overflowing into the creek. He said they thought if they could just dump the truck on the ground right there and keep pumping, they could have the station pumped down, and have the pump replaced within an hour or so. The station was overflowing into the creek uncontrolled, and would have continued to until some action was taken. With both pumps not working, this station would have continuously overflowed into our waterway until it was fixed. Because it was overflowing and polluting the creek, I felt that waiting for a rented pump or another piece of equipment would have resulted in more sewage going into the creek than the alternative, which was to dump a few thousand gallons on the ground.
We had no other options available at the time. To this day, I have had nobody, including the Department of Health, DEC, EPA or the U.S. Attorney's Office tell me what we could have done differently that would have resulted in less sewage going into the creek. They proceeded to replace the broken pump, and also pulled the other pump and found a control float in the impeller, causing it to be jammed. I didn't request permission from any regulatory agency to do this, but I absolutely reported it to them shortly after, including all details stated above.
No action was taken by either agency at that time. For those who question whether we made attempts to alert the public when advised to do so, I suggest researching an article the OBSERVER published on April 26, 2014. The article is headlined "Sewer pump overflowing into Westfield creek." The first line of that article reads, "Residents in the village of Westfield are being warned of a sanitary sewer overflow in a waterway." If I had merely reported the overflow event and not taken the action that I did, vastly greater amounts of sewage would have polluted Chautauqua Creek. Ironically, that would have been acceptable under the law while our waters would have experienced significantly greater pollution.
This incident was taped by an employee using his cell phone. I can't comment on the motivation of the employee who took the video because I don't know, so I will state only facts regarding what happened in the time between this incident, and the resulting legal action, and the public will judge whether he acted in good faith to "warn the people of the continued health risks and dangers of the illegal dumping operations." Nothing in the video contradicts any of what I have stated here or what has been stated by any other village official.
The employee showed the video to the mayor, who had been included in all reporting sent to the regulatory agencies, and assumed they were OK with what was done due to their response and the fact that they were notified of exactly what happened. There is no indication that the complainant made any official complaint or shared the video until reporting the event Chautauqua County Health Department, one year and four months after the incident happened. Upon seeing the video and hearing the complainant's allegations, the EPA and DEC started an investigation into the issue. In early November 2015, I, as well as several other village employees were questioned by investigators. My statement to them was the exact same statement I have made here. Prior to sentencing, I had the opportunity to review statements made to state and federal investigators by those questioned. While the majority of the statements closely resemble what I have said, there were some differences including a false allegation that there was another, identical incident that happened a few weeks later. This alleged second incident never happened, and all others interviewed, including those allegedly present for the event, confirmed that it did not happen. Allegations were also reported that on both incidents, kids were swimming in the creek. That allegation is contradicted by every person who was there, with the exception of one person. Every other employee that was there said there were no people in the creek at all on June 13, 2014, during this incident, and of course the second alleged incident never happened.
The U.S. Attorney's Office still decided to pursue legal action in this case. They originally threatened to pursue multiple felony charges, but after reviewing additional facts and information, including inconsistencies between the allegations and witness statements, decided to offer a plea agreement. The offer was a misdemeanor charge, a negligent violation. They would only seek a fine and a short probation term. My legal counsel advised me to take the agreement, as they felt it was the best route for several reasons.
A trial would have been costly to the village, would have been a huge burden to me, my family, and all of the employees of the village. Dumping sewage on the ground without specific authorization is in violation of the law. One person likened what was done to someone getting a speeding ticket while driving an injured party to the hospital. Yes, it is a violation of the law, but was necessary to prevent further damage. Time was of the essence. I think that is an accurate analogy of what happened here.
As far as the writer's assertion that Trustee Robert Cochran should have abstained from any vote, I don't see where that is relevant. Even if he had abstained, or even voted against paying the fine, the Village Board still would have taken that action. The vote by the Village Board was unanimous. Should he have come to a different conclusion about this matter than the other Trustees, and the majority of the community for that matter? This is just an effort to try to publicly damage the reputation of another dedicated official of Westfield. Ironically, the writer opted not to disclose the fact that she is a relative of the person with "exemplary character and honorable intentions" who took the video and then waited over a year to report it.
Did she question his motives and timing in doing so? If this was such a horrible act, why wait over a year to report it? If the writer wonders about the absence of public praise and commendation for him doing this, she should directly ask the people who she thinks this praise should be coming from.
A person's character and how they are viewed by others is built over a lifetime. If a person is honest, kind, and treats others well, I have found that people will usually respond in kind. My character and the actions I took in June of 2014 to limit the sewage overflow have been assailed, but I stand behind both and acknowledge the overwhelming support of my community and employer, for which I am grateful.
I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank everyone who has supported me during this difficult time.
I hope this helps to put this issue to rest. I want nothing more than to move on and continue to be able to serve the Westfield community for many years.
Andrew Thompson is the director of public
works in the village of Westfield.