Wednesday, March 04, 2015
Federal investigators: Testing data at Granby sewer plant falsified
By Chad Hayworth
Newton County News
Former Granby sewer superintendent Chuck Ranslow — along with, perhaps, other city officials and employees — falsified testing data at the city's sewer plant and lied on government-mandated monitoring reports for more than 2 ½ years, federal investigators say.
A team of criminal investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency served a search warrant Thursday at Granby's sewer plant, seizing lab results, check sheets, budget documents, city council reports, operator notes and an electronic clone of the sewer plant's computer, among other items, federal court records show.
Investigators also stopped at Granby City Hall seeking information.
The government's case is laid out in a 17-page affidavit by EPA Special Agent Kimberly M. Bahney, a Kansas City-based criminal investigator. The affidavit is the basis for the search warrant, which federal Magistrate Judge David P. Rush signed on Feb. 20, court records show.
The EPA believes that Ranslow repeatedly falsified the results of tests he was required to conduct on the sewer plant's discharge by listing the same levels of total suspended solids, ammonia, and oil and grease on successive reports.
By falsifying the lab results, Ranslow was able to hide from state and federal investigators that the plant was discharging unacceptably high levels of the three elements, the affidavit shows.
Both the federal Clean Water Act and Title 18 of the United States Code forbid making false or fraudulent statements. Both statutes carry the possibility of fines and federal prison sentences for those convicted of violating them.
The apparent subterfuge came to light during a four-day inspection of the plant in late September and early October by EPA inspector David Pratt, whose work is being conducted independently of the criminal investigation.
In an interview last month with Bahney, Pratt said that he discovered the repeated element levels during his review of paperwork at the plant.
Of 127 values reported on internal lab tests from January 2012 to September 2014, only nine were non-replicated. The reports showed a total suspended solids level of 2.3 milligrams per liter on 12 separate occasions, while 11 other levels were replicated at least five times during that time period.
Pratt told Bahney that in his decade as an inspector, he has never seen a sewer plant obtain the exact same figures while testing at different times.
The records — sworn to be true and correct — that showed the false data were signed by both Ranslow and Granby Mayor Richard Eutsler and submitted to the state Department of Natural Resources, the affidavit shows.
Reached for comment Tuesday, Eutsler said that while he did sign documents that were later sent to state and federal regulators, he didn't create the data included in them.
“I didn't have any way of knowing what it was,” he said. “This could come out OK for us. I hope it does.”
The last falsification inspectors found occurred in July 2014, a month before Eutsler campaigned to aldermen for a $2,300-a-year raise for Ranslow, saying he'd been told Ranslow was doing a great job. The City Council approved the raise by a 3-0 vote, with Alderman Travis Gamble abstaining from voting.
Ranslow was less than cooperative during Pratt's inspection last year, the affidavit shows.
“I felt like I was being lied to the entire investigation,” Pratt told Bahney.
Pratt said that when he asked questions of Ranslow and Bill Breedlove, who was working at the plant as a part-time operator, he would get different answers from each, or get a different answer from the same operator later in the inspection.
An example, the affidavit shows, was when Pratt asked about how they collected testing samples. Breedlove explained the procedure, but then Ranslow retracted Breedlove's statement and said they took samples in a different way.
Pratt's examination of internal lab records suggest the work was being completed in the way Breedlove described, the affidavit shows.
During the inspection, Ranslow said to Pratt: “You must think I'm a complete dumbass.” Pratt took that to mean Ranslow was probing to see if the federal inspector recognized he had been falsifying data, the affidavit shows.
Pratt's investigation also discovered that the plant is not properly disposing of as much sludge as should be expected for a facility of its size. Records show the plant disposed of 18.6 dry tons of sludge in 2009, 14.2 tons in 2010, one ton in 2011, and 1.8 tons in 2013. No records for 2012 could be found, the affidavit shows.
Granby's operating permit shows the plant should produce 37.4 tons of sludge per year, the affidavit shows.
Granby's plant has been under increasing scrutiny from state and federal regulators for a series of sludge discharges into an unnamed Shoal Creek tributary, known locally as Gum Springs Branch. The affidavit notes that the Granby plant has spilled untreated sludge into the creek on at least 11 occasions since 2001.
Pratt noted during his inspection that sludge is being discharged into the creek because the “mixed liquor” — that is, water that contains biosolids — is not being captured accurately for treatment. State regulators didn't catch the discharges because data the plant supplied was being falsified.
In addition to falsifying results from tests he was conducting, Pratt's investigation found that Ranslow also failed to accurately document the results of plant tests conducted by an outside laboratory on documents he submitted to regulators.
In both June 2013 and March 2014, Granby reported ammonia values that are 99 percent lower than what the lab results show, the affidavit shows. While the lab found ammonia levels of 16 and 14.9 milligrams per liter, respectively, the city's report to inspectors shows 0.16 mg/l and 0.14 mg/l. Similar results were also discovered on the city's reporting of oil and grease levels in its discharge, the affidavit shows.
Ranslow quit in the wake of Pratt's inspection, which found five potential major violations of the plant's operating permit. He is currently working at Joplin's sewer plant, a city spokesman confirmed Tuesday.
Granby is still awaiting the final results of Pratt's inspection and any potential administrative penalties, including fines.
The city has hired engineer Gene Spears to find ways to improve the plant, at the behest of state regulators. Granby has about a month to present its plan for fixing the plant to the state.
Granby aldermen met in closed session Tuesday to discuss the case. They apparently reviewed copies of the affidavit, which the Newton County News provided to them. Aldermen made no public statement when they emerged after an hour behind closed doors.
Bahney's affidavit is not an indictment, nor does it show all the evidence the government has collected in the case.