Iowa Sues Sioux City for Cheating on Wastewater Reports, Fines Could Be in Millions

The Iowa Attorney General's Office announced Friday a lawsuit against the state's own Sioux City over allegations that the city manipulated the results of wastewater tests for several years, proposing a penalty system that could fine the city millions of dollars.

From at least 2012 to 2015, employees at the plant allegedly increased the amount of chlorine they would put in the water to kill bacteria on days they tested for E.coli to mislead the Iowa Department of Natural Resources about the effectiveness of the plant.

A typical day saw about 2.5 gallons of chlorine per hour put into the water, while on testing days that amount spiked as high as 120 gallons per hour, according to the Des Moines Register.

The lawsuit alleges that during the period, the plant inadequately disinfected water that passed through the facility into the Missouri River, potentially endangering people and wildlife that came into contact with the water.

The Iowa Attorney General's Office said in the statement that the lawsuit aims to stop the plant from continuing to violate water safety regulations. The lawsuit also proposes a penalty of as much as $5,000 per day for every day the facility violated the standards, which over several years could amount to millions of dollars.

Iowa, Sioux City, Water Pollution Missouri River
Iowa officials have announced a lawsuit against the state's Sioux City over alleged manipulation of wastewater tests at a water treatment facility that feeds into the Missouri River. Above, a general view of the Lower Brule Indian Reservation is seen with the Missouri River in the background on April 22, 2020, in Lower Brule, South Dakota. Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.