ELKTON — A judge fined a Cecil County man $10,000 on Friday, after he pleaded guilty to six criminal charges relating to him “tampering with wastewater treatment sampling methods and falsifying information” while operating an Elkton-area wastewater treatment plant — a deception that masked the “excessive amount” of E. Coli discharging from that facility into a nearby waterway, according to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.
Cecil County Circuit Court Judge Jane Cairns Murray imposed a suspended two-year sentence on the defendant, John Oliver Moon, 64, of Elkton, and placed him on three years of supervised probation after he had entered his guilty pleas as part of a plea agreement, prosecutors said.
The judge also fined Moon $60,000 and then suspended $50,000 of that total, leaving him with $10,000 that he must pay to the Maryland Clean Water Fund, prosecutors added.
MAGO officials reported that Moon was a licensed operator who was “responsible for the general administration” of a wastewater treatment plant in the unit block of Johnstown Road in Cherry Hill, north of Elkton, when he committed his offenses over a four-year period, starting in 2015.
Moon, however, was not acting as an agent of Cecil County, but rather as an employee contracted by the private company that owns the wastewater treatment plant, Scott Flanigan, director of the Cecil County Department of Public Works, clarified on Monday.
“Mr. Moon was not an employee of Cecil County Government when these violations occurred; instead, he was under contract with CECO to operate the CECO wastewater treatment plant,” Flanigan said, adding, “Cecil County Government has never had any role in the operation and maintenance of CECO’s wastewater treatment plant.”
Flanigan made his clarification after explaining, in part, that CECO, Inc., a private utility, owned the wastewater treatment plant at 91 Johnston Rd. and provided sanitary sewer service to customers in the Manchester Park area of Cecil County until late March.
As part of his duties, Moon was responsible for conducting the daily monitoring and collecting of monthly samples, which he submitted to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), according to MAGO prosecutors.
“From 2015 through 2019, the submissions to MDE showed continued violations for excessive levels of nitrogen and repeatedly documented nonfunctioning equipment. However, Moon’s submission routinely resulted in virtually no detectable levels of E.Coli, which was overwhelmingly inconsistent with the levels regularly reported prior to when Moon took over operation of the plant,” prosecutors outlined.
The plant fell under increased scrutiny in July 2018, after a series of overflows caused untreated waste to run onto surrounding properties, prosecutors said. On July 2, 2018, prosecutors added, nearby residents reported overflowing sewage running from the primary lagoon.
In the required follow-up report to MDE, Moon wrote that the “cause of the discharge was due to extensive rain and a failing wastewater system,” prosecutors reported.
During that period, Moon continued providing water samples and daily reports for submission to MDE, all showing non-detectable levels of E. Coli, according to prosecutors.
However, contrary to the information contained in the reports submitted by Moon, sampling gathered by MDE and the Cecil County Health Department agents showed “extremely high levels” of E.Coli, which triggered an investigation, prosecutors reported.
“Moon ultimately admitted that he was not taking the samples and readings as required, and further stated that he would intentionally increase chlorine levels, acknowledging that he did so to avoid problematic results,” a MAGO spokesperson said.
The MAGO filed 16 counts of falsifying water pollution statements — a misdemeanor — against Moon on Sept. 2, and the agency did so by way of a criminal information, according to Cecil County Circuit Court records. Moon was not arrested but, instead, was issued a criminal summons, and he had his initial courtroom appearance on Oct. 6, court records show.
Moon’s jury trial had been set to start on April 28, according to court records, which further indicate that court officials canceled his trial after his guilty pleas and sentencing on Friday.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh announced the sentencing of Moon in a written statement issued by his office late Friday afternoon.
Frosh thanked Environmental Crimes Chief Investigator Thomas Waugh and Assistant Attorney General Kory H. Lemmert for “their hard work on this case” in the written statement. Frosh also thanked the MDE and the Maryland Natural Resources Police for their assistance.
On Monday, in addition to clarifying that Moon was not affiliated with Cecil County Government at the time of his criminal offenses, Flanigan provided the following relatively recent background relating to the wastewater treatment plant.
* Using grant funding obtained from the MDE, Cecil County constructed a sewer pumping station and sewer main to connect CECO’s Manchester Park sewer collection system to the county’s Cherry Hill sewer system. That new infrastructure was placed into service on March 23, when the county began conveying sewage from Manchester Park to the Cherry Hill system and, as of March 30, the county took over CECO’s sewer collection system and customers. CECO’s operator took the CECO wastewater treatment plant out of service on March 23, once the sewage started going to the Cherry Hill system.
* While the county took over CECO’s sewer collection system, under the terms of an agreement that the county had with CECO, the county did not take possession of the CECO wastewater treatment plant and it remains the property of CECO at this time.