Two Berwick Sewer District employees have pleaded guilty to tampering with equipment and falsifying records at the town’s wastewater treatment plant for eight months, in a rare criminal prosecution of environmental protection laws.

After bacteria and dissolved oxygen testing equipment malfunctioned at the treatment plant in 2015, Vincent Cardona, 44, and Steven Knight, 47, fabricated testing results and Knight submitted false monthly discharge reports to the state, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Wastewater plants test oxygen and bacteria levels to make sure the plant is treating sewage properly. At the time, Knight was the chief operator of the plant, which discharges into the Salmon Falls River in southern York County.

It is unclear if untreated or poorly treated wastewater spewed into the river during the eight months of false reporting at the plant, said Brian Kavanah, director of the Division of Water Quality Management at the DEP.

The river is the municipal water source for the Berwick Water Department, which serves about 2,500 people.

“Whether or not it led to increased pollution, we don’t know because the data we were given was inaccurate or invalid,” Kavanah said.

Criminal complaints against the two men were filed by the Maine Attorney General’s Office in Springvale District Court in mid-October last year.

Knight pleaded guilty on March 22 to knowingly making false statements and was sentenced to 20 days in jail, all suspended, and a $5,000 fine. Knight also agreed to abandon all wastewater professional certificates and to not apply for recertification for 12 years.

Knight was accused of falsifying monthly discharge reports for seven months, until February 2016, when the DEP staff discovered inoperable equipment during a routine inspection of the plant.

Cardona pleaded guilty on Jan. 23 to tampering with a monitoring device and method. He agreed to complete 16 hours of lab training and provide evidence against Knight. In exchange, his case would be dismissed if he completed his sentence. Cardona was accused of tampering with the biochemical oxygen demand system for five months.

It is unclear why the men didn’t report the malfunctioning equipment so it could be repaired. Cardona did not return a phone call Monday. Attempts to reach Knight were unsuccessful.

The state rarely prosecutes criminal charges in environmental cases – just three times since 2009 – but it took a hard line on the Berwick violations as a deterrent to would-be polluters, Kavanah said. Sewage discharge laws rely on self-monitoring and reporting by treatment plants, Kavanah said, so the integrity of the entire system depends on reporting discharges honestly and transparently.

“There has to be integrity in the data; that is the basis of the program. We want everyone in the regulating community to know that this is just unacceptable,” Kavanah said. The vast majority of treatment plants comply with monitoring and reporting requirements, he added.

“There has to be a strong message to the regulating community that the sampling, analysis and reporting has to be completely honest.”

Berwick Sewer District Administrator Jay Wheeler, in an interview Monday, said Knight resigned from his job about a year ago but Cardona still works at the plant. He said he knew the DEP had investigated the issue after finding problems during an inspection, but did not know criminal charges had been made in the case.

“We’ve met with investigators and DEP. I didn’t know anyone was charged,” Wheeler said.

Knight held the highest level of state certification for wastewater treatment and was in charge of wastewater testing and analysis, Wheeler said.

“Steven was chief operator, basically responsible for operating the plant and reporting to DEP,” he said. “If anyone should know it would be him.”

The Berwick Sewer District serves about 900 customers. Its treatment plant has four full-time employees, Wheeler said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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