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Inquiry Leads to Firings at O.C. Sewage Plants

Discipline: Undercover investigation turned up evidence of drug use and sales. At least 30 will lose jobs.


FOUNTAIN VALLEY — At least 30 workers face firing and another 60 will be disciplined after an undercover investigation found evidence that employees used or sold methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine at two county sewage-treatment plants, officials said Thursday.

A four-month probe, handled by a private security firm, involved the use of undercover operatives and found that some employees stole equipment and supplies.

Employees will be informed of the disciplinary action over the next few days and have the right to appeal the decision to an independent hearing board, said Michelle Tuchman, a spokeswoman for the Sanitation Districts of Orange County.

The agency is expected to continue normal operations despite the staff losses, and customers should see no interruptions in service, Tuchman said.

Sanitation districts officials stressed that the drug use never jeopardized worker safety or caused environmental problems at the plants, which process 240 million gallons of sewage a day and dump the treated waste water into the Pacific Ocean.

The treated sewage is tested before leaving the plants to make sure it meets water-quality standards, preventing raw sewage from being pumped into the ocean, Tuchman said.

But agency leaders acknowledged that they are troubled by the revelations, which they said points up the need for improved drug programs and training.

"The public has the right to say, 'What's going on down there,' " said John J. Collins, joint chairman of the sanitation districts, which employs 600 workers. "It's disconcerting to uncover this kind of problem involving this number of employees. But we are working hard to resolve the problem."

The agency plans to reemphasize its "zero tolerance" drug policy to employees and create new training programs for front-line supervisors on how to detect and deal with employees who use drugs, Collins said.

Though the probe's findings might appear startling, many large companies and organization face similar drug problems, experts said.

"Unfortunately, this type of situation is not untypical," said George Marcelle, communications director of the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. "The estimates are that 10%-20% of the work force has a drug or alcohol problem that is likely to interfere with their work performance."

A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found men ages 18 to 34 were most likely to use illegal substances at work, and that marijuana and cocaine were the most commonly used drugs.

Sanitation districts management commissioned the investigation in July after receiving several phone calls from residents who reported suspicious late-night activities, noise and traffic at the plants in Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach. At the same time, top managers heard rumors from employees about drug use at the facilities.

Officials declined to detail how Confidential Management Services Inc. gathered evidence. But several workers said the probe involved sending undercover investigators into the plant posing as employees.

"Several [methods] were used in the investigation to obtain information. Undercover [activities] was certainly one way," Tuchman confirmed. "I will tell you, however, that employees' dignity and respect was certainly upheld."

Some employees also said that video surveillance was also involved, but officials denied it. "There were no hidden cameras anywhere in the plant," Tuchman said.

Two weeks ago, the security firm began a series of one-on-one interviews with about 100 plant employees. After their interviews, the employees were placed on paid administrative leave until the conclusion of the investigation.

Officials said the action was designed to prevent the employees from comparing stories or otherwise compromising the investigation and should not be viewed as a form of discipline.

Investigators this week cleared a dozen of the 100 employees interviewed and ordered them back to work. The remaining employees are scheduled to be fired, suspended for up to several weeks or have written warnings placed in their files, Tuchman said.

Methamphetamine appear to be the most common drug used at the plants, Collins said, followed by marijuana. Some employees also sold each other illegal substances on agency property and stole a portable generator, brooms and other supplies.

"We tried to consider each situation" when deciding on discipline, Collins added. "Someone who had done [drugs] once two years ago might be treated differently than someone who has been doing it for two straight years."

Sanitation districts managers said it is not their intention to seek criminal charges against employees. But Tuchman noted the Fountain Valley Police Department took possession of several unidentified items that employees had in their pockets when they arrived for their interviews.

Fountain Valley police said Thursday that they were not aware of any arrests related to the agency's investigation.

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