The town of Bethlehem fired Albany County Sheriff’s deputy Gary Fish after he served 12 years as a part-time patrolman for the town’s water supply.
Fish claims he was fired because he spoke out about the mercury spill at the town’s water plant, but town officials insist he was fired because of repeated scheduling conflicts but would not comment further because the incident is a personnel matter.
As a veteran police officer of 23 years, Fish said the town wasn’t fully disclosing incidents involving mercury and other problems at the town’s water plant in the town of New Scotland. He was hired by the town in 1996 to help patrol the restricted reservoir and its watershed from potential trespassers.
Fish alleges that his termination has nothing to do with scheduling and is the result of him talking to the town’s attoney James Potter after a meeting about inaccuracies in the report given to the public regarding mercury spills at the water plant.
He said more mercury was released inside of the water plant then what was reported and that workers were constantly put at risk by `having to track through mercury for two years.`
There were two reported mercury spills at the town’s water plant over the past two years. The mercury had escaped from outdated mercury flow meters still used at the plant, which contain up to five pounds of mercury in each one. The town said the spills were small and that mercury did not reach the drinking water.
Bethlehem is slated to replace all of flow meters as result of the spills, but according to Fish about six still remain.
`I had come forward to someone in town government after a town board meeting because the story that was being reported wasn’t true,` Fish told Spotlight Newspapers in an exclusive interview. `It’s kind of odd when someone has worked for 12 years and comes forward with information and lo and behold they are fired.`
Fish, who said he has contacted an attorney over the matter, concluded, `the whole thing is very suspicious.` He added that there `were other things, too,` but couldn’t publicly comment as of yet because of possible pending litigation with the town.
Bethlehem Supervisor Jack Cunningham said he couldn’t comment about personnel matters but scoffed at the idea that someone was fired for speaking to a town official.
Cunningham did say that the town is in full compliance with all of the state Department of Environmental Conservation regulations in regards to the water plant and pointed to state and local testing that revealed no mercury made it to the water supply.
`We’re in full compliance with the DEC,` Cunningham said. `DEC has been out there and they looked at the entire situation and they issued a report and they have given us a letter of requirements and we’re working very closely with them.`
Cunningham claimed no wrong doing on the town’s part in Fish’s termination and said he is legally unable to respond to the accusations.
`The specifics on why he was let go, this is always a frustration because when someone gets let go they can say anything they want but we can’t talk about it because it’s a personnel matter,` Cunningham said. `So that’s all I can tell you.`
Fish said the way he was fired was also unusal.
`I reported to work and got a note to call the [water plant] supervisor and was told to go to his house near the reservoir, which is taxpayer provided, and he told me that I was done,` Fish said. `Usually when you fire someone you don’t invite them to your house.`
Cunningham confirmed that Bethlehem’s chief water treatment plant operator Rich Sayward lives at a town-owned property but said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the termination.
The DEC fined the town $15,000 in June for `mercury and petroleum reporting and handling violations` that occurred over the past two years.
By signing a consent form, paying the $15,000 and remaining compliant, the town does not have to pay an additional $60,000 civil penalty to the DEC, according to the state’s signed consent order, which stated the fine could have totaled $75,000.
Currently the town is in full compliant with all of the stipulations of the consent order signed by Cunningham on June 6, according to DEC Region 4 spokesman Rick Georgeson.
`Bethlehem is in full compliance with the consent order and has given us everything we asked for,` Georgeson said.
Fish stated that problems at the town water plant were ignored until the DEC got involved and that he spoke out about the mercury spills partly because he felt he and other workers were being put at risk.
He said he was never given anything in writing besides his termination letter about why he was fired and that he has no record of disciplinary measures taken against him or his work performance. Fish said he asked to be reinstated, but was denied.
`It was a good job, I enjoyed it up until recently. I didn’t enjoy them letting us walk around in mercury for two years,` Fish said. `They informed the public there was no health risk to them in the water but they didn’t really seem to care about us employees.`
For and updated version of this story go to www.spotlightnews.com, or read the Wednesday, Aug. 27 print edition of The Spotlight.