Feds raid OMI sewage plant in Norwalk

By BRIAN LOCKHART

Hour Staff Writer

NORWALK, CT

On Thursday, Operations Management International (OMI), the operator of the now-privatized Norwalk, CT wastewater treatment plant found itself embroiled in a federal criminal investigation and facing a possible lawsuit from the city over alleged contract violations.

At 9 a.m. a small group of agents from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, armed with search warrants, entered the plant’s buildings at 60 South Smith St. to seize a host of records dating back to June 1, 2000, when OMI’s 20 year, $13 million contract with the city was initiated.

Ground for the plant was broken on Oct. 16, 1996. It was upgraded using $50 million from the Connecticut Clean Water Fund to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering Long Island Sound. The $9.6 million operation, funded by a new user-fee system, treats about 4.3 billion gallons of wastewater and processes over 2,800 tons of sludge annually. According to the EPA’s search warrant, the records being seized Thursday included: Diagrams, plans and descriptions of the plant equipment; sludge handling/treatment records; wastewater operations, monitoring and sampling records; laboratory records, communications between employees concerning sampling, testing, reporting and permit violations; financial records; and the personnel files of Project Manager Fred Treffeisen and Waste Water Operator Timothy Slauson.

The agents referred all questions to the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s office in New Haven, but representatives there refused comment on the nature of the investigation.

Susan Mays, corporate communications manager for the Colorado-based OMI, said "we have cooperated with any requests, but I don’t know a whole lot and we can’t really speculate on anything."

Mays added: "We want to assure the public it hasn’t and won’t affect our ability to deliver service to Norwalk."

Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp, whose office met with the EPA on Sept. 5, said he did not know any details of the probe, but that he had not been made aware of any health-issues. The mayor said he was also assured by EPA officials that no city employees were under investigation.

Knopp also said it was a coincidence that the city’s Water Pollution Control Authority was scheduled Thursday night to vote to hire attorneys Robinson and Cole to represent Norwalk in its contract dispute with OMI.

Knopp presented members of the authority with correspondence between the city and OMI, dating back to Oct. 23, 2001, in which the Public Works Department continually demanded improvements in operator training, maintenance, chemical addition and response procedures. While acknowledging that "the 2000/2001 contract year was a transition year" for the plant, the city believes that OMI racked up a total of $291,122 in contract violations between July 1,2001, and this past June 30.

It is unclear exactly what OMI has done to try to address the city’s concerns, but apparently it is not enough.

In one response to DPW Director William Grumman, dated March 13, 2002, Jerry McMackin, OMI’s regional business manager, wrote "OMI strongly disagrees with the method used to calculate the penalties" and that a meeting was planned with the city soon afterward.

Grumman, in a letter sent Monday to OMI Executive Vice President Gary Miller, writes if the company does not provide a satisfactory response to the city’s concerns, "(we) will have no option remaining but to demand that OMI immediately pay the full accumulated penalties or face legal action." Enter the Water Pollution Control Authority and its unanimous vote to retain Robinson and Cole, the firm that had negotiated the city’s contract with OMI in the late 1990s.

Knopp also said he has not been told of the need to notify residents of any health-issues related to possible contract breaches with OMI.

"It’s entirely feasible that the plant operation could be meeting certain state standards but failing to meet our contract standards" which, in some cases, are higher than the state’s, Knopp said.

company also runs plants in Ridgefield, New Haven and Branford.

It was not known Thursday if Norwalk was the only state operation visited by the EPA. But Ridgefield officials noted their plant, run by OMI for the past decade, was not targeted.