SIOUX CITY — A former supervisor at Sioux City’s wastewater treatment plant intends to plead guilty to federal criminal charges alleging he conspired with others to manipulate water sample test results to make it appear that discharges from the plant into the Missouri River met federal guidelines.
Patrick Schwarte’s attorney on Monday filed a notice that Schwarte plans to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States and falsifying or providing inaccurate information from 2012 through June 2015.
He is scheduled to appear before Chief Magistrate Judge Kelly Mahoney on Jan. 23 in U.S. District Court in Sioux City.
No other individuals had been charged as of Monday, though an information document filed last week by the U.S. Attorney’s Office said other plant operators — some who were known to prosecutors and others who were unknown — were involved in a process in which they were instructed by Schwarte, who was a shift supervisor, and the plant superintendent to raise chlorine levels added to wastewater on days that E. coli samples were taken.
The elevated chlorine level would produce test samples showing plant discharges met federal limits for levels of fecal coliform and E. coli. Once the samples were taken, chlorine added to the city’s wastewater was reduced to minimal levels unlikely to disinfect discharged water enough to meet federal standards, court documents said.
Those fraudulent testing and reporting procedures violated and concealed violations of the city’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits and the federal Clean Water Act and deceived the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which administers the city’s permits, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged.
Schwarte’s notice of intent to plead guilty is not proof of wrongdoing by other city employees or officials, nor does it mean that the city could be subject to civil penalties handed down by the EPA, said Guy Cook, a Des Moines attorney representing the city, mayor, city council and city staff.
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The city’s wastewater treatment practices came under scrutiny in April 2015, when the DNR was tipped off that plant supervisors were manipulating chemical levels used to treat sewage, resulting in discharges into the Missouri River containing high levels of E. coli bacteria that potentially endangered public health. Improper chlorine releases also can endanger fish and water organisms.
The city dismissed Schwarte and plant Superintendent Jay Niday in June 2015 after the DNR began an investigation. DNR reports have said that at least four other city employees were involved, though none were identified. Niday told state investigators the city saved at least $100,000 in one year when workers administered the smaller levels of chlorine. He and Schwarte both agreed to surrender their state wastewater licenses when they were fired.
Niday was not named in Schwarte’s court documents, and it is not known if he or others will be charged.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation in December 2016 served a search warrant on city offices and collected computer data. The city has “bent over backward” to voluntarily cooperate with the federal investigations, Cook said.
An EPA spokesman could not be reached Monday because, according to the recorded greeting on his voicemail, he has been furloughed for the duration of the government shutdown.