Lab official admits he faked water samples to help coal companies skirt regulations

The case brings up larger questions about the reliability of self-reporting

Published October 10, 2014 8:31PM (EDT)


A West Virginia lab technician on the mining industry's payroll plead guilty Thursday to repeatedly faking water sample quality tests to pass Clean Water Act standards.

John W. Shelton, a field technician and later, supervisor, for Appalachian Laboratories Inc., the Charleston Gazette reports, admitted that he "diluted water samples, substituted water he knew to be clean for actual mining discharges and did not keep water samples refrigerated, as required by state and federal rules."

And by repeatedly, we're talking systematically: Assistant U.S. Attorney Blaire Malkin alleged that Shelton started faking reports when he was hired in 2008, and that he continued right through June 2013, at least. The goal? To "increase the profitability of Appalachian by avoiding certain costs associated with full compliance with the Clean Water Act," according to Malkin, as well as by "providing its customers and the agencies regulating those customers with reports purporting to show that those customers were operating their sites in compliance with the CWA and thereby allow those customers to avoid fines and other costs associated with bringing their operations into compliance with the CWA and thus encourage and maintain for Appalachian the patronage of those customers."

It appears to have been a company-wide problem, according to the Gazette:

In an agreed-to “stipulation of facts” filed in court Thursday, prosecutors and Shelton said that, throughout his time with the company, another Appalachian Laboratories official — referred to as “First Known Person” — stressed to him the importance of “pulling good samples,” a term that was understood to mean samples that would comply with permit limits, not necessarily samples that were taken properly.

Among other things, the stipulation says that employees of Appalachian did not maintain water samples at the proper temperature, by putting them on ice in coolers, unless they knew that DEP inspectors were in the area.

Shelton and other Appalachian employees “falsified and rendered inaccurate” water samples by diluting them with distilled water or replacing them with water they knew to be in compliance with permit standards, according to the stipulation. The document says that Appalachian officials used the term “honeyhole” to refer to water from certain sites that would always test within permit limits and could be used in place of or to dilute “bad water.”

“The whole Clean Water Act system relies on self-reporting,” Derek Teaney, senior staff attorney with the group Appalachian Mountain Advocates, told the Gazette. “If that self-reporting can’t be trusted, then the system just falls apart.” Which appears to be what happened here.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Clean Water Act Coal Coal Industry Water Safety West Virginia