Sewer plant operator in hot water

A state board has found that the chief plant operator at the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District failed to ensure the sewer plant was operating properly and did not update its maintenance manual, keep raw data collected by plant operators or report disciplinary action to the state.

The state Water Resources Control Board in mid-January sent a letter of proposed disciplinary action to chief plant operator Jeff Appleton, stating he “used fraud and deception in the course of employment” and failed “to use care or good judgment.”

Water board staff interviewed several plant employees during its investigation. Two of them — one who was laid off when her position was eliminated in September and the other who is on paid administrative leave — have filed two separate actions against the district.

Their lawsuits — and the resulting action taken by the state board — highlight problems that have been simmering for more than a year at the district, which serves Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano.

The board’s Office of Enforcement proposes to downgrade Appleton’s sewage treatment plant operator certificate for a year.

During a visit to the plant in May, water board staff found that operators were not given written standard operating procedures and the plant’s operations and maintenance manual had not been updated since Appleton assumed chief plant operator duties in 2000.

When water board staff interviewed Appleton, he denied knowledge of any verbal or written instructions to plant operators that would “indicate improper collection of samples in favor of permit compliance,” according to a letter to Appleton from Reed Sato, director of the board’s Office of Enforcement.

Water board staff interviewed other employees, including Devina Douglas and Scott Mascolo, whose statements contradicted Appleton’s claims, Sato wrote.

Appleton may reapply for certification, take an exam and pay the appropriate certification fee; however, he can’t operate in his current position for a year. He has 30 days to file an appeal.

Appleton, reached Monday at the district plant, referred all questions to John Wallace, plant administrator and president of the Wallace Group, who said Appleton is planning to file an appeal.

In July, the water board filed a notice of violation against the district with six deficiencies and compliance issues, including improper collection of effluent samples. Since then, the district has changed its methods to get a more representative and frequent sampling of the wastewater, has been updating its operations manual and answered the state’s request for record-keeping information, Wallace said.

In her lawsuit, Douglas alleges she was retaliated against for speaking up to state regulators about issues with the district’s operation and water-quality sampling methods.

Mascolo, a 12-year employee and plant supervisor who has been on administrative leave since March, is trying to get his job reinstated after district officials alleged he displayed anger management problems.

“To me it’s fairly straightforward,” said Thomas Giovacchini, attorney for Mascolo. “Scott and Devina worked together and were both making complaints about the district. They eventually started coming down on Scott then Devina’s position was eliminated so they could save money.”

In September, after a hearing, the district was ordered to reinstate Mascolo to his former position and pay — but he remains on paid leave. Mascolo said he received a notice in December of intent to terminate his employment on allegations that he falsely accused another employee of embezzling money received by selling scrap iron.Wallace said the district does not comment on ongoing litigation.