James Barber admitted in federal court Friday that he diverted 200,000 gallons of sewage from a treatment plant at Mount Rainier National Park into the Nisqually River, but the 52-year-old man said he’s been made a scapegoat.
Barber pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to a single misdemeanor count of violating the Clean Water Act.
As part of his plea, he agreed to quit his job and not enter the park for five years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle said.
“He also agrees not to seek employment in any job related to wastewater treatment for five years and will not seek certifications, licenses or permits related to wastewater or drinking water treatment for the remainder of his life,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement.
Barber is to be sentenced Dec. 14. It will be up to U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Creatura to accept the terms of the plea agreement.
Federal prosecutors charged Barber after he failed in August 2011 to stop a buildup of sewage at the plant that serves the Paradise Inn and Paradise Visitor Center.
Filters at the plant became clogged from an influx of sewage. Instead of fixing the problem, Barber decided to bypass the normal treatment process and discharge the waste into a drainage ditch that flows into the Nisqually River, court records state.
He then left work for several days but did not notify co-workers of the problem or log it.
“As a result, minimally treated sewage was dumped directly into the drainage ditch and flowed into the waterfall and Nisqually River,” prosecutors said.
The sewage flowed into the river for four days before it was caught. Authorities said it cost about $20,000 to clean up the sewage that didn’t reach the river.
Barber told The News Tribune on Friday that he didn’t intentionally foul the river. He did divert some wastewater but forgot to turn back a valve before leaving work, he said.
“My mind was racing that day. There was just so much work,” he said. “I didn’t intentionally do that.”
Barber said he was not qualified to operate the plant serving the Paradise area but was put in charge of it by park officials because of staffing shortages. He also operated two other plants in the park for which he held the proper certifications, he said.
“I shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place,” Barber said. “I’m the fall guy.”