The Dec. 16 Commerce City Council vote to contract with ESG Operations to run the city’s water plant was the culmination of events that included large-scale maintenance failures, improper management of chemicals, untrained employees, a break-in at City Hall and a letter threatening to expose city manager Pete Pyrzenski (and his wife) for embezzling city funds.
Leading a reporter on a tour of the water plant last week, the city manager said staff’s philosophy had been to “run the plant to failure” — meaning equipment went un-maintained and was operated until it broke, whereupon it was replaced.
Pyrzenski illustrated the dearth of maintenance by pointing to the “pipe gallery,” a room containing the pipes that carry treated water into the city or to Banks Crossing. Flaking paint and massive amounts of rust were the predominate features. Interim plant superintendent Don North, a former water system inspector for the Environmental Protection Division and now an employee of ESG, noted that he’d signed inspection reports at the Commerce plant when he was with EPD.
“I wrote this up to be painted,” he said of the pipe gallery, noting that he left the EPD in 2004.
Failure to do the most routine maintenance was the norm, Pyrzenski said. Moving into the pump room, where there are four pumps that send treated water through the system, the city manager explained that one of the two large pumps that direct water into town had a vibration — its bottom impeller was completely worn out and four others were damaged.
“Anyone who knew anything about pumps would have known that was a problem,” he said.
The pump had never been serviced or maintained since it was installed in 1967 — until it and the other high-service pump were rebuilt two years ago.
Breakdowns were routine, taking the plant out of service frequently and, for Pyrzenski, raising the specter of a disaster.
“It was very scary,” he admitted.
Other issues unfolded as well, including:
•a request from McLocklin that the city spend $90,000 on a new filter console being pushed by a friend of his that was supposed to bring operations of the filters to state-of-the art. Pyrzenski took McLocklin’s word on the need, the city council agreed to fund it, but the console turned out to be a combination of late 1970s to early 1980s technology, North said
•flaking paint over the filters that staff did not repair because they couldn’t “get around to it.” Under North’s direction, staff since repainted the ceiling.
•a Class 1 operator who claimed he was “hired from the head down”
•the realization that McLocklin “had no clue” about how to apply chemicals to the water — the plant put 50 percent more fluoride in the water than recommended by the EPD
•a system-wide lost water rate of 30 percent
•virtually no maintenance was being performed on the city’s four water tanks in spite of the city paying approximately $40,000 a year to Utility Services, Inc. for tank maintenance. The 200,000-gallon tank at the water plant has not been painted or cleaned since 1967 and has a large accumulation of silt, according to Pyrzenski. “We’ve paid probably $160,000 and nothing has been done,” he declared.
•significant amounts of overtime paid to plant personnel
•staff ignored an order in August from the EPD to do specific maintenance on the dam
•McLocklin and the other operators did not know how to pull data from the plant’s SCADA system
•certified Class 1 operators at the plant did not know how to perform basic functions and received no training
According to Pyrzenski, McLocklin began to grow resentful about Pyrzenski’s demands for improvements at the water plant. In early September someone broke into City Hall and rummaged through Pyrzenski’s office. Shortly thereafter, Pyrzenski said he and Mayor Clark Hill each received a two-page hand-written letter that, among other things, complained about Pyrzenski “trying to disrupt” operations of the water plant and threatened to expose Pyrzenski and his wife for “embezzling city funds.” The letter writer also indicated complicity in the City Hall break-in.
“The detectives questioned everyone and looked at the handwriting,” Pyrzenski said, coming to the conclusion that McLocklin authored the letter.
McLocklin was subsequently fired Sept. 18 and arrested — but not for the break-in. According to Ken Harmon, head of the Commerce Police Department’s Criminal Investigative Unit, McLocklin wrote the letter purporting to represent “a group” that broke into City Hall and threatened to release the information they had discovered.
“It was all fictitious,” Harmon said. “He didn’t have anything to do with the break-in, but he thought he would capitalize on events.”
That and Pryzenski’s observations at the water plant “really shed a whole bunch of light” on the water plant personnel and operations “and who was in charge of our water supply,” the city manager said. “This was embarrassing.”
It was more than embarrassing.
The city had a three-year EPD inspection coming up and just three weeks to prepare. Under North, staff did what it could to mitigate what is expected to be a damning report — possibly including a consent order — and North is overseeing correction of all of the issues experience tells him EPD will raise when its report comes back in a year or later.
“If we had not had those three weeks of prep time…” he mused.
North hopes that by the time the EPD report comes in, the plant will have resolved all of the issues in the report.
As for the employees, North says he’s bringing them up to speed — they can all download and understand the SCADA data now, for example.
“Attitudes have changed,” he declared.
All current staff will be offered jobs with ESG pending passage of drug tests.
ESG officially takes over the plant on Jan. 1, its 18-month contract paying nearly $900,000. Pyrzenski thinks that the city will not only have a properly operated water plant, but will also save money through more efficient operations, reduced water loss, the elimination of virtually all overtime and the use of preventative maintenance.
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