News Feature | December 12, 2016

Computer Data Seized As FBI Looks Into Wastewater Treatment Plant

Source: Aerzen
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Computer Data Seized As FBI Looks Into Wastewater Treatment Plant

In a rare intersection between the worlds of FBI probes and wastewater treatment, federal officials are pursuing an investigation in Sioux City, Iowa.

News that the FBI seized city computer data as part of an investigation into the Sioux City regional wastewater plant broke early this month, but details were not immediately available. For instance, it’s not clear what exactly the FBI is looking for in the data, or who, specifically, they are investigating. It’s not even certain that any criminal charges will stem from the investigation.

“Execution of search warrants is just one step in the investigation process, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that criminal charges against current or former city employees and/or officials will be filed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, Tony Morfitt, told the Sioux City Journal.

Specifically, the FBI served a search warrant on the information technology department in a local county courthouse. They did not take any servers, hard drives, or other computer equipment. 

Guy Cook, an attorney from Des Moines who represents city staff in the litigation, told the Sioux City Journal that the FBI also gathered information from another site, but did not confirm that it was the wastewater treatment plant.

“We have taken steps to work collaboratively with [federal officials] to provide what they are seeking," Cook said, per the Sioux City Journal’s initial report on the investigation.

However, there is reason to believe the recent probe is connected to violations at the plant last year, per the Sioux City Journal:

The city’s wastewater treatment practices have been under state and federal scrutiny since April 2015 when the Iowa Department of Natural Resources [DNR] learned two plant supervisors were manipulating chemical levels used to treat sewage, which resulted in illegal permitted discharges into the Missouri River to contain high levels of E.coli bacteria, potentially endangering public health.

The DNR received a tip that the two supervisors, Jay Niday and Pat Schwarte, boosted chlorine and bisulfate doses on days when E. coli samples were taken, before lowering the levels again.

“A statement said that at least four other city employees took part in the manipulation of test results on direction from Niday and Schwarte, and the practice dated back as far as 2011, when the city took over operation of the plant from a private contractor,” reported the Sioux City Journal.

Niday told investigators that the city saved at least $100,000 in the year that workers were manipulating chlorine levels. Both he and Schwarte were dismissed in return for agreeing to surrender their state wastewater licenses.

“State officials also confirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was looking into possible violations of federal environmental laws,” the Sioux City Journal reported, regarding the recent FBI warrant. “[The] search of the city’s IT department appears to be the first public indication that the U.S. Attorney is considering criminal charges related to the case.”

Image credit: "FBI" Jonathan © 2008, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/