Investigation shows Spencer waste treatment plant falsified reports
13 Investigates uncovers a gruesome find: high levels of E.Coli bacteria released directly into a major Indiana waterway.
Even more disturbing is what appears to be a cover-up, including falsified records in the town where it happened.
Indiana's top environmentalists are now calling for a criminal investigation.
The pictures and what's in them are enough to make you sick, and what happened in the Owen County town of Spencer is enough to make you mad.
"It's everywhere, everywhere you go down there where it discharges. You can't clean that up," said Jimmy Groh, a former Spencer Wastewater treatment facility worker, as he pointed out an overflow of sludge.
Groh then clicked on another image.
"This is actually, raw, raw sewage coming from the town, and this is the final water going out, and you can't hardly tell the difference," he Groh said showing two water samples.
But containers of murky water contain raw sewage even though one sample reportedly went through the cleaning process at the Spencer waste water treatment plant.
13 Investigates has learned that for years, polluted water just like the murky sample flowed into White River, and right along with it, E.Coli, a nasty bacteria.
What's worse, the wastewater is coming directly from the water treatment plant that's supposed to stop it.
How could this happen?
For years the water treatment plant sent bogus pollution records to the state.
"The documents were falsified," revealed Groh, who blew the whistle on the improper discharge.
"Wow! I was just...I couldn't believe that," said Groh, who's collected dozens of disturbing examples of potential water pollution from the plant.
He says he was fired from his maintenance job at the Spencer Water Treatment facility after he took the pictures of the sludge flowing into the river, and showed them separately to both the Spencer Town Board President and an inspector with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
"This is the discharge, where it comes from at the sewer plant. It comes down underground across the field to right here and this is where it discharges out to the river," explained Groh.
The edges of the canal where the water flows are now lined with black slimy sludge. Groh's pictures were the state's first clue that something was terribly wrong. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management went to the site to investigate and pulled hundreds of records.
"It raised concerns. Anytime you see pictures that were showing environmental damage or potential environmental damage, we take it seriously," said Bruno Pigott, the Assistant Commissioner at the Department of Environmental Management.
Pigott confirms something sinister had been taking place at the Spencer Water Treatment facility for at least three years.
He showed 13 Investigates a stack of test results that reveal a history of falsified records. The records were sent to the state by the Spencer water treatment plant to fudge the levels of E.Coli released into the river by the plant.
"We have found enormous discrepancies," added Pigott.
Samples of processed wastewater from Spencer were sent to the Dillman laboratories in Bloomington. The certified test results were sent back to Spencer. But before those results were sent to state offices in Indianapolis, they were altered, most of the time drastically reduced.
The real numbers show E.Coli levels routinely ten times higher than what was reported from Spencer.
During the time in question, lab results show Spencer's E.Coli levels were often over the limits and in some cases, off the charts.
"A lot of the time I would see the paper come back from Dillman and it would say "TNC." What the heck is "TNC?" "TNC" means too numerous to count," Groh told 13 Investigates.
So who was responsible for falsifying the numbers sent to the state, to cover up conditions like this?
IDEM blames Shelley Edwards.
Edwards won awards for years of working as a "weather spotter" while working as Spencer's wastewater treatment plant Superintendent for 25 years.
"He may tell you that he did not falsify the data, but we have three years of data...and his signature. It's easy to say someone was falsifying data. He's the one that signed off on it being accurate," said Pigott.
That data now has ramifications that go well beyond the town of Spencer.
"The water program throughout the nation depends on the information submitted...to determine if water quality is being protected or not. If we can't rely on it, how can the citizens of the State of Indiana rely on the fact that this water that's being discharged from this facility is clean and safe?" added Pigott as he talked about the seriousness of the situation.
13 Investigates went in search of Shelley Edwards, to his home and his job, before finally reaching him by phone. After identifying himself as Edwards, he told 13 Investigates:
"Actually I didn't falsify any records. There was some altered records that nobody was able to prove who did what and that's all I can tell you at this time," he said, denying he had done anything wrong.
A town newspaper article says Edwards resigned from his post and mentions nothing of falsified records.
"I am the one who signs off on it, I am the responsible charge," Edwards acknowledged, but said, "The numbers that we seen, it wasn't hurting anything. Otherwise IDEM would have punished me for it and they didn't," he said.
Edwards says he quit to protect his health amid the scrutiny. But IDEM says he was stripped of his credentials for failing to consider the health of the environment by reporting false results.
"Decertification of his license means that man can never be a wastewater treatment plant operator. He cannot sign information that is submitted to us," Pigott said emphatically.
"Why weren't there environmental charges filed against this person?" questioned 13 Investigates.
That's when Pigott revealed charges are under consideration.
"We also referred this matter up to our criminal division for investigation," he said.
IDEM says the criminal investigation is pending.
Jimmy Groh wants a full prosecution for what he sees as a crime against his family, community and environment.
"I'm ticked I lost my job, and I'm not going to lie about that," Groh admitted, "But I'm really disgusted about this," he said pointing to pictures of contamination. "The river's going to be worthless if everybody does this," he said.
Over the last three years, the state has taken action against six other wastewater superintendents for falsifying data. Some of them prosecuted by the EPA for violating the clean water act.
Neither the town president nor the town attorney would go on camera, but say they're committed to making changes. They have hired a new, highly certified operator, but confirm Shelley Edwards is still working at the plant in maintenance, but nowhere near the samples or test results.
Indiana Department of Environmental Management: Decertification cases
(Operator name, case #)
· Shelley Edwards, 20855
· Robert Haller, 20658 (operated in St. Joseph County, 1/31/12)
· Brian Reed, 19517
· John McMillin, 18548
· Clyde Mason, 18419
· Gary Flowers, 18310
· Brent Aker, 18001 (operated in Kosciusko County, 10/7/10)
To look up the Agreed Order for each decertification, enter the case number on IDEM's online enforcement database.
Statement from Town of Spencer
"As town board members and stewards of the town's citizens, we take any complaint or report of this nature seriously. The Town of Spencer disagrees with Mr. Groh's interpretation of the magnitude and meaning of the recent IDEM Agreed Order, which was only made known to Town officials the past few weeks. The Town has taken appropriate action to replace Mr. Edwards and remove him, at reduced pay, from all activity involving the operation of the wastewater treatment facility and has established a new operator holding one of the highest wastewater treatment operator licenses available in the State of Indiana. The Town has consulted with its engineers and vendors concerning best practices and remedial actions required at the facility, and the operator currently reports that we are in compliance with all IDEM regulations."
Town Council, Spencer, IN