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 said he was fired because of repeated scheduling conflicts. The town would not comment further because they said the incident is a personnel matter.
As a veteran law enforcement officer of 23 years, Fish said the town wasn’t fully disclosing incidents involving mercury and other problems at Bethlehem’s water treatment plant located in the town of New Scotland. He was hired by the town in 1996 to patrol the restricted reservoir.
Fish alleges that his termination has nothing to do with scheduling and is the result of his talking to Town Attorney James Potter after a meeting about what he called inaccuracies in the report given to the public by Public Works Commissioner Josh Cansler in February regarding mercury spills at the water plant.
Fish said more mercury was released inside of the water plant than what was reported and that workers were constantly put at risk by `having to track through mercury for two years.`
Fish also said that mercury-tainted sludge was routinely `hosed down` past the plant’s clear well and into a `sludge pit.` The clear well contains treated water that is pumped directly into the town’s water system.
Only a metal collar and a piece of plywood separated the mercury sludge being hosed away and the town’s water supply, according to Fish.
There were two reported mercury spills at the town’s water plant over the past two years, resulting from mercury that had escaped from outdated mercury flow meters still used at the plant, which each contain up to 5 pounds of mercury. The town said the spills were small and that mercury did not reach the drinking water. The state Department of Environmental of Conservation’s investigation into the incident confirmed that mercury was not in the town’s drinking water.
Bethlehem is slated to replace all flow meters as result of the spills.
`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 regarding his termination, said, `The whole thing is very suspicious.`
Potter confirmed that Fish had spoken with him, but said he could say little else because of the legal ramifications involved. He said the town has not been approached by any lawyer citing a wrongful termination lawsuit or any other legal matter involving Fish’s termination.
`He did mention that there were some issues at the water treatment plant,` Potter said. `The DEC had an ongoing investigation at the time, and it appeared to be very comprehensive. The town was fully cooperating with the DEC’s investigation.`
Fish said there `were other things, too,` but couldn’t publicly comment because of possible pending litigation with the town.
`The people accused of mishandling the mercury spill are still employed, and the person who came forward with information was fired,` Fish said. `I advised the town attorney afterwards, and basically the town didn’t want to hear it. I was told by Town Hall that I’m merely a number on a piece of paper.`
Bethlehem Supervisor Jack Cunningham said he couldn’t comment about personnel matters but scoffed at the idea that someone would be fired for airing concerns to a town official.
Cunningham did say that the town is in full compliance with all of the state DEC regulations in regard 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 said there was no wrongdoing on the town’s part in Fish’s termination, but 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 unusual.
`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 on 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.
Fish said he was fired shortly after an article in Spotlight Newspapers reported that the town had signed a consent order and was fined by the DEC.
Currently, the town is in full compliance 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.
`The town’s solution to that problem was to buy everyone new shoes to replace the ones they’ve been wearing for two years,` said Fish. `Every employee at the plant was exposed to mercury and every inch of that plant was contaminated.`
Cunningham spoke out against these allegations, stating the plant is routinely tested and local and state health officials have cleared the water treatment plant.
`They have not issued any report or anything that would indicate that any of the employees’ health was at risk,` Cunningham said. `We replaced all of their shoes, at a cost to the taxpayer, and the old shoes — from what I understand — were disposed of along with the other material that was removed by the hazardous waste company.`
Cunningham said the town has created a new protocol requiring employees to immediately notify the DEC about `any` chemical spills in town. Currently the DEC requires any release of mercury one pound or greater to be reported.
Fish 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.
Spotlight Newspapers has obtained copies of Fish’s termination letter, his hiring letter, and a note from Sayward stating, `I have something that I need to discuss with you,` which was ultimately his termination.
`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.“