Three former officials of Ecological Systems Inc. (ESI), a now-defunct environmental contractor that operated a major waste treatment facility in Indianapolis, have been sentenced in federal court for felony violations of the Clean Water Act.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prosecution stemmed from ESI's intentional discharges of hundreds of thousands of gallons of untreated wastewater and stormwater from its facility directly into the Indianapolis sewer system.
The company, also known as ESI Environmental, went bankrupt in October, leaving behind nearly $35 million in debt and a contaminated facility for EPA to clean up.
Fines, Community Service
Joseph T. Biggio, 52, of Chicago, ESI's former Operations Manager and Executive Vice President, was sentenced to three years’ probation, a $15,000 fine, and community service after pleading guilty earlier to two counts of CWA criminal violations and one violation of the federal false statements statute. His community service requires him to lecture graduate business students regarding his conviction.
Biggio had faced three years in prison for each CWA violation, five years in prison for making false statements, and a fine of $250,000 for each of the three felonies.
Michael R. Milem, former Operations Manager, was sentenced to six months’ home detention, three years’ probation, a $5,000 fine and community service after pleading guilty to one criminal violation of the CWA. Milem's community service also requires him to lecture college students about his case.
Mark R. Snow, ESI’s former Lab Manager, was sentenced to three years’ probation, a $5,000 fine and eight hours of community service per month during his probation, for one criminal CWA violation.
All three defendants were also banned from applying for any environmental license or employment in the environmental field without disclosing their felony convictions to licensing boards or prospective employers.
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on the terms of the sentencing.
ESI specialized in the treatment of non-hazardous wastewater, oil recovery and recycling, industrial cleaning, lab packing and environmental demolition.
ESI describes itself on its still-live web site as “a waste water treatment specialist” and “an industry leader in the treatment of non-hazardous wastewater and environmental management.”
The Indianapolis facility processed more than 5,000 waste streams for automotive assembly plants, tool-and-dye shops, oil refineries and distributors, chemical manufacturing companies, pharmaceutical groups, university laboratories and others—more than 1.5 million gallons each day, the company said.
ESI filed for Chapter 7 liquidation in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Oct. 1, after the three officials were indicted. The firm listed assets of $41,466 and liabilities of nearly $35.3 million.
ESI Environmental Inc.
ESI processed more than 5,000 waste streams at its Indianapolis facility.
Founded in 1992, ESI was once Indianapolis’s second-largest environmental contractor based on revenue. The company reported $23 million in revenues in 2008 and $16 million in 2009.
Authorities began investigating the company in February 2009 after Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management received complaints from several Indianapolis homeowners that thick, oily wastewater was flowing into their yards from sewer manholes after a heavy rainfall.
ESI lacked the required storage capacity to handle wastewater from this amount of rain, authorities later learned. So, they said, Milem and Snow decided to directly discharge untreated oily wastewater into the Indianapolis sewer system, pumping 300,000 gallons of wastewater over eight hours through hoses that bypassed ESI's treatment processes.
Hours later, the sludge-like waste emerged from several sewer manholes downstream of the ESI facility, contaminating the residential properties.
Authorities eventually learned that ESI had not been treating the waste it took from customers for “a significant period of time.” Much of its treatment equipment needed repairing or replacing, authorities said.
They also then learned that ESI had lied to EPA and Indiana about its storage capacity in the event of a major storm.
‘Cherry Picked’ Data
Biggio helped the cover-up, EPA said. From 2001 to 2007, authorities said, he told employees to take multiple samples but only report the most favorable results to the city, instead of reporting all of the samples as required by permit.
Biggio “‘cherry picked’ the data and only reported the ‘best’ samples whose analytic results reflected lower concentrations of certain pollutants,” EPA said in a release.
In addition, Biggio had wastewater collected after rainfalls, resulting in diluted samples that could be reported as "lower" pollution levels, EPA said.
The false results and statements “attempted to disguise the fact that pollution discharge limits were being exceeded on a regular basis,” EPA said.
“The company's Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure Plan (SPCC) stated it had millions of gallons more capacity than actually existed to handle spills and rain events.”
SPCC regulations require onshore oil production or bulk storage facilities to provide oil spill prevention, preparedness and responses to prevent oil discharges. Regulated facilities must report discharges of oil or releases of hazardous substances to EPA and/or other government agencies.
‘Repeated Attempts to Hide’
The defendants’ “repeated attempts to hide the plant's capacity to handle the wastes that ESI accepted and excess rain water” threatened the “critical protections” of the CWA, said Randall Ashe, who heads the EPA Criminal Investigation Division's Chicago office.
"Today's sentences prove that those who willfully circumvent our nation's laws and put Indiana residents and nearby homeowners at risk will be caught and prosecuted."
Bankruptcy Follows $1.5M Settlement
Two days before filing for bankruptcy Oct. 1, ESI reached a $1.5 million deal with EPA over the illegal discharges and the presence of multiple tanks on its property containing hundreds of thousands of gallons of various wastes and toxins, possibly including the carcinogen polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs).
An EPA inspection of the site Sept. 1 site found:
• A storage tank containing about 300,000 gallons of possible PCB-containing sludge;
• Two water storage tanks containing about 1.5 million gallons of sludge;
• Stormwater emptying into one of the two water storage tanks and then discharging into the sanitary sewer; and
• Other storage tanks—ranging in size from 3,000 to 90,000 gallons—containing waste oil, water, sulfuric acid, caustics, hydrogen peroxide and sludge.
The company’s bankruptcy trustee called the property’s condition at the time “an emergency situation.”
The EPA has been doing cleanup at the site since October.