The former plant manager of Wiegardt Brothers, Inc., an oyster processing plant in Ocean Park, was sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma for violating the U.S. Clean Water Act. The company released water with higher-than-permitted levels of fecal coliform to flow into Willapa Bay for more than a decade, the U.S. Attorney General’s office reported.
U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton sentenced the former plant manager, Lonny Howard, 56, to one year of probation for adding water from a company cleaning system to waste water being discharged into Willapa Bay so discharge samples would appear to have lower amounts of the coliform.
“Fecal Coliform contamination can have particularly serious consequences for children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems,” said U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes. “The felony conviction in this case is an appropriate sanction for this defendant whose callous disregard for his legal obligations harmed the environment we Northwesterners hold dear.”
Howard also admitted to falsifying data when diluting the samples didn’t bring the levels down to acceptable levels, and for lying to inspectors about the origin of the waste water samples. He pleaded guilty in June 2015 and is no longer employed in the food industry or any other industry with environmental compliance issues, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“We’re just trying to move forward,” Ken Wiegardt, vice president of Wiegardt Brothers Inc., said Monday.
His father, Frederic “Fritz” Wiegardt, company president and majority owner, didn’t come out of the experience unscathed. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act in June 2015 as well because he waited more than a year to report the violations to the Department of Ecology.
The violations are thought to have occurred from 2002 to 2014, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Wiegardt performed 75 hours of community service and was jointly responsible for the $100,000 fine levied by the court. He has been working with environmental regulators on a remediation plan. The company also agreed to make a $75,000 community service payment, implement an EPA approved environmental management system to ensure future compliance, and publish a public apology in the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association’s quarterly newsletter.
Wiegardt Brothers, Inc. has installed nearly $1 million worth of new equipment that helps ensure waste water discharged from the plant does not have harmful levels of pollutants, said Ken Wiegardt.
The water released didn’t contain strictly waste; it also contained residue from working with the oysters. The coliform is part of that. So are bits of oyster shell and other matter, including the soap used for cleaning, however, he explained.
Regulators ultimately were unable to assess whether the violations resulted in any environmental harm. Wiegardt said the company simply wants to make sure it complies with all of the rules.
“We’re a fifth-generation family business,” he said. “We want to be a sixth-generation family business.”