Iowa sues Sioux City over wastewater scheme, river pollution

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SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — The state of Iowa said Friday that it is suing Sioux City over what it says was the city’s manipulation of wastewater testing results and dangerous pollution of the Missouri River in a scheme that saw the wastewater plant’s former supervisor sentenced to jail.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office said in a news release that the lawsuit seeks to stop the city’s wastewater plant from violating wastewater safety levels. It also asks the court to assess a civil penalty of up to $5,000 for each day standards were violated, putting the city at risk of being fined millions of dollars.

The lawsuit says that from 2012 to 2015, the plant increased chlorine levels on days that it tested for E. coli to disinfect wastewater dumped into the river, submitting those results to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to make it appear that the plant was meeting safety requirements. But the plant would significantly lower chlorine levels on non-testing days, endangering people and wildlife with improperly disinfected wastewater sent into the Missouri River, the suit says.

The city continues to violate permit limits for ammonia and chlorine, the lawsuit said. The city’s attorney, Guy Cook, disputed that assertion and said people and wildlife were never in any danger from the wastewater. Any past problems with the plant were caused by “the rogue conduct of two former employees,” and no other city officials were aware of that conduct, he said.

“The city has since taken considerable steps and … spent considerable sums to operate the wastewater treatment facility properly,” Cook said.

Former Sioux City wastewater plant supervisor Jay Niday was sentenced last year to three months in jail and fined $6,000 after pleading guilty to conspiracy and falsifying or providing inaccurate information. Former plant shift supervisor Patrick Schwarte was sentenced in late 2020 to two years’ probation and fined $5,000 for the same two charges.

The lawsuit says that at the same time plant workers were using the scheme, the city was touting the effectiveness of its wastewater treatment system in an attempt to raise the facility’s capacity rating and recruit more businesses that would have pushed more polluted water into the already overburdened plant.

“Cheating on required environmental tests gave the city an unfair advantage in this competition to attract business and industry among other municipalities,” the lawsuit says.

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