For more than 18 months, King George County Service Authority General Manager Christopher Thomas ignored notices of violation from the state enforcement agency that regulates clean water.
After the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality heard nothing but silence from King George for part of three calendar years—2015, 2016 and 2017—state officials picked another point of contact. They reached out to Christopher Werle, chairman of the Board of Directors that oversees the Service Authority.
DEQ informed him of the violations at all five county wastewater treatment plants—and Thomas’ lack of communication—and Werle pledged to address the problems as quickly as possible.
Then Werle turned around and did the same thing Thomas had done.
While Thomas kept mum for a year and a half on violations and fines that DEQ warned could total as much as $100,000 per facility and $32,500 per day, Werle didn’t share the information with other members of the Service Authority Board of Directors or the King George Board of Supervisors for nine months.
Three of the five Service Authority directors are also members of the Board of Supervisors. Werle is one of two citizens who have been appointed to the Service Authority board because supervisors wanted residents, who also are customers, to have a say in how things are done.
When The Free Lance–Star passed along the DEQ emails and violation notices to Service Authority directors and county supervisors last week, they “learned new factual information that we previously had no knowledge of,” said Mike Bennett, vice chairman of the Service Authority board. “This new information is significant and will require serious consideration by both boards.”
Bennett’s letter was a joint response from every member of the Service Authority board except Werle, and all members of the King George Board of Supervisors.
The members recognize “the gravity of the situation ... and that various changes will be necessary to make certain that the Service Authority operates appropriately in the future,” according to the letter.
The matter will be addressed at Tuesday’s meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m. in the board room of the Revercomb Administration Center.
‘ERROR IN JUDGMENT’
An April 26 story in The Free Lance–Star first revealed that the DEQ was taking action against the King George Service Authority. At various times since 2010, there had been “nagging issues” at the plants—problems that were corrected, then popped up again, said Ann Regn, DEQ’s public information officer.
The amount of bacteria or chemical elements being released into county creeks and streams from the plants was higher than the state allowed. At Oakland Park, levels of total nitrogen were as much as 44 percent more than state limits, according to the violation notices.
Bacteria such as fecal coliform, present at Fairview Beach, can make people sick, and too much ammonia, a simple compound of nitrogen, can kill fish and other aquatic life.
Werle sent out two press releases in April in response to questions from the newspaper. He admitted that he and Thomas had not apprised the boards of the issues until March 20, 2018. He said the full responsibility of that decision rested with him.
“This was an error in judgment and I apologize,” Werle wrote.
But when he did divulge the problem, Werle didn’t point out the full extent of it. His press release noted that he and Thomas had met with DEQ on Nov. 30, 2017, to discuss compliance issues and “map out a preliminary way ahead,” but made no mention of the email that came from DEQ five months earlier.
He also left out the part about Thomas’ lack of response. Because the Service Authority is a separate entity—not a county department—Thomas answers only to the Board of Directors.
In a June 13, 2017, email, Rebecca Johnson, a water compliance inspector with DEQ’s Northern Virginia office, told Werle that he would become the point of contact because the agency previously had sent correspondence to Thomas, the general manager, but, “DEQ has not received any response regarding the compliance letters since Nov. 18, 2015.”
After the April story about the violations, resident Yvonne Richard stood up at a Service Authority meeting May 1 and blasted the agency. She lives in Eden Estates, where the community pool had problems with green water in June 2016, and she had been less than impressed with the treatment she said she got from Thomas and Werle.
“I have been belittled by Service Authority board members, even told I couldn’t possibly know anything because I am a girl,” Richard, who is a county school teacher as well as a handywoman around the house, told the authority.
She wanted Thomas and Werle held accountable for the continued violations at the wastewater treatment plants and for withholding information. She asked that Werle be removed from the Service Authority board and that Thomas be disciplined, if his actions violated his contract.
Richard’s husband, Neil, has been attending every Service Authority and Board of Supervisors meeting for months. He’s part of Project94, which consists of four King George High School graduates from 1994 who started blogging county news and notices after the King George Journal shut down in late 2016. The other members are Sarah Snow, Sean Gates and Jeremy Bertz.
A full-time “house spouse” who has a criminal justice degree and an interest in history and research, Neil Richard wanted to know how the Service Authority got to its current state. He started researching decades of Journal stories and put in a Freedom of Information Act request with DEQ about the violations at the wastewater treatment plants.
He combed through about 240 DEQ documents and a dozen e-mail chains—and passed some along to The Free Lance–Star.
In a letter to Service Authority directors and Board of Supervisors members on Tuesday, Neil Richard said Thomas and Werle withheld at least 30 notices of violation issued by DEQ since June 2017. He said they also have withheld other bits of information, such as sewage spills.
A report from Oct. 24, 2017, states that a sewer main burst on State Route 3 and spilled less than 2,000 gallons of raw sewage. The maintenance crew repaired the break and “used a pump truck to suck up raw spill and limed area,” stated the environmental pollution incident report that was filed with DEQ.
At each Service Authority meeting, Thomas gives a general manager’s report, in which he updates directors on water main breaks, ongoing projects or issues with everything from meter tampering to new commercial connections.
In his report from Nov. 14, the next meeting after the Oct. 24 spill, he made no mention of raw sewage on Route 3.
NEED TO KNOW?
As for why Thomas decided he didn’t need to respond to the state authority that oversees water operations, he wrote in an email to The Free Lance–Star Friday that he was frustrated “by the increased frequency of DEQ plant inspections and the nature, relevance and significance of their noted findings.”
Thomas said the Service Authority continuously tried to maintain compliance, and that he couldn’t give any more specifics because he doesn’t want to impair the ongoing negotiations with DEQ.
The state is working with the King George Service Authority to write a new consent order that addresses all the violations and aims to find a permanent fix for them. It hasn’t been determined if the county will be assessed fines.
The Service Authority, which already is beleaguered by debt and high rates, has incurred at least $34,580 in state fines in recent years from three enforcement actions related to wastewater treatment plants.
Werle said last week that it’s his understanding board members haven’t been told about violation notices in the past—that the general manager simply took care of them. He went on to suggest that the others are told on a need-to-know basis.
“The real question here is how much information does the full Board of Directors expect to get and how often should they get it,” he wrote in an email. “Since day one of my appointment, the other members have relied on me to look into and handle virtually everything related to the King George County Service Authority. I have been happy to do so.”