By Eric Freedman
A federal judge has sentenced a Flint, Michigan, polluter to one year behind bars for illegally discharging more than 47 million gallons of untreated waste into the city’s sewer system.
Robert Massey, the 70-year-old president and owner of family-owned Oil Chem Inc., pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act over an 8½ year period between 2007 and 2015.
“That amounts to over 72 Olympic-size swimming pools. The crime was driven by greed. Oil Chem received over a million dollars to dispose of the (material),” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in its sentencing memorandum to U.S. District Judge Stephanie Davis.
Massey, who lives in Brighton, faced a maximum of three years in prison, plus fines. Prosecutors requested a sentence of 1½ to 2 years.
“Massey’s criminal conduct spanned numerous years, involved deceit, and was motivated by money at the expense of the environment and the community,” the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum said.
Earlier, Oil Chem paid $300,000 in fines and restitution to settle a civil suit over the illegal discharges.
Massey founded the company in 1978, according to the sentencing memorandum filed by his defense lawyer, Dennis Lazar of Flint,
Here’s what happened, according to court documents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case.
Oil Chem obtained a city permit to discharge certain types of industrial wastes into the sewer system, but not landfill leachate waste, which forms when water filters through a landfill and absorbs material from decomposing trash, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
“Landfill leachate typically contains a variety of chemicals that may be hazardous to human health and the environment,” according to the criminal charge filed last December.
Eight Michigan landfills paid a transport company to take the leachate. The transport company then paid Oil Chem to dispose of the material, according to Massey’s plea agreement.
Leachate from one of those landfills was contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, the sentencing memorandum said, and was discharged into the sewer system and moved from there to the city’s wastewater treatment facility.
PCBs are toxic chemicals and probable human carcinogens linked to higher rates of liver, gall bladder, brain, gastrointestinal tract and other types of cancers, according to health agencies. They are “notoriously harmful to the environment and human health,” the sentencing memorandum said.
The criminal charge and prosecution’s sentencing memorandum didn’t name the landfills or transport company, but the defense sentencing memorandum identified one as Northern Oaks Landfill in Harrison, Clare County. A separate civil case brought by the city of Flint said Oil Chem had disposed of leachate originating at Peoples Landfill in Birch Run, Saginaw County.
The plea agreement said Massey ordered his employees to discharge tanker truckloads of leachate daily at the close of business, allowing the waste to flow from a storage tank to the sanitary sewer overnight.
It said Oil Chem submitted false monthly discharge reports to the city.
“Massey knew about, condoned and authorized the practice,” the charge said.
The defense sentencing memo said, “Bob has accepted all responsibility for failing to obtain the necessary permit to accept the leachate.”
The illegal discharges “had no impact whatsoever on the drinking water crisis that has plagued our city. Further, Bob was totally unaware the leachate contained PCBs,” the defense memorandum said.
Oil Chem is downstream of where Flint had been taking in water for treatment before the lead crisis.
“The offense for which Massey accepts responsibility is a serious crime. However, it does not involve firearms, drugs, assaultive behavior or the type of criminal activity which preys upon the young, the old or the defenseless,” the defense memorandum said. “There is no need to protect the public from Robert Massey committing further crimes.”
Acting U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin said, “This case should serve as a warning to anyone who knowingly and willfully violates the environmental laws of the United States. You will be prosecuted.”
It wasn’t Massey’s first run-in with the Environmental Protection Agency or other regulators, according to the plea agreement.
In 2006, the agency investigated Massey and Oil Chem for allegedly discharging a highly flammable and explosive substance into Flint’s sewer system and for altering pretreatment discharge reports submitted to the city.
Later, in 2016, MLive reported on an accusation from the Flint Department of Public Works that Oil Chem had leaked PCBs into the Flint River, citing a cease and desist order from the department. The city initially sought $2.7 million in fines for civil infractions but settled for $300,000.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons will tell Massey when and where to report to serve his sentence, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.