James Barber probably should have left bad enough alone.
The former operator of the wastewater-treatment plant at Mount Rainier National Park was convicted this week of a felony violation of the Clean Water Act for allowing more than 200,000 gallons of sewage to flow into the Nisqually River in 2011.
Barber, 53, of Yelm, Thurston County, had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of the act last year, but he was allowed to withdraw the plea after convincing a federal judge in Tacoma that he didn’t understand the repercussions of the plea.
Under the earlier misdemeanor plea, Barber faced up to a year in jail. The new felony conviction carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.
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Barber was convicted Monday after a six-day jury trial in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. No sentencing date has been set and Barber remains free on bond.
Court documents show Barber was the operator of the Paradise Wastewater Treatment Plant, which treats wastewater generated at the Paradise Jackson Visitor Center and Paradise Inn at the national park.
The government said Barber and his co-manager — who was a certified plant operator — had been arguing and that Barber had stopped discussing issues at the plant with her. During this time, Barber had been involved in the “chronic mismanagement of, and apathy toward, the plant and his job during the spring and summer of 2011.”
Prosecutors say Barber routinely failed to note problems in the plant’s logbook and never brought them up in staff meetings, even as the plant began to malfunction and clog because of a lack of maintenance and heavy usage because of the summer tourist season.
Before going home for the weekend on Aug. 27, 2011, Barber “sabotaged” the plant by closing one large valve, and opening another, the government alleged. That allowed “minimally treated sewage and sewage sludge” to discharge for three days directly into a small creek that empties into the Nisqually.
The incident was discovered when other employees arrived to find “sewage, sewage sludge and toilet paper” pouring into the unnamed creek. Investigators determined that upward of 200,000 gallons were released.
Barber and his attorneys argued that he was not qualified or licensed to operate the plant on his own.
The defense also pointed out that the plant had never been issued a permit by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to operate, an issue that apparently continues at the plant today, according to court filings.
The plant had operated for years under EPA parameters, the government said, although it occasionally violated them.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706