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Total neglect for total nitrogen in local wastewater


A federal grand jury in Boise has indicted a former owner and employee of a Montana-based wastewater management company for allegedly submitting false data about the amount of pollutants in Southwest Idaho water.

Raymond Shackleford, 67, of Bozeman, was charged with 13 counts of fraud after 37 water tests performed by his company, Quality Water Systems, underreported the level of total nitrogen in various developments including schools, churches and residential subdivisions. What is total nitrogen, you ask? Concisely, it is a number designating the amount of both dissolved and particulate nitrogen in water, minus the amount of nitrogen gas. Not clear enough? Well, neither is the water; after all, total nitrogen levels are usually raised by the presence of things like phytoplankton, bacteria, erosion runoff, and a healthy dose of sewage-derived pee-pee and doo-doo for flavor.

According to the local U.S. Attorney's Office, the stink began in 1999, when Shackleford submitted plans to the Idaho Department of Environmetnal Quality for a wastewater treatement plant at the proposed Moon River Ranch (that's right, Moon) residential subdivision in Eagle. The initial results-which Shackleford claimed to have obtained from a private lab-showed nitrogen levels within approved limits, which led the DEQ to approve 12 additional QWS treatment systems for locations like Liberty Charter School in Nampa, Holy Apostles Church in Meridian, Purple Sage Elementary School in Caldwell, the Callaway Ranch subdivision in Eagle and the Danskin Ridge subdivision in Kuna.

According to the indictment, DEQ began in 2003 to suspect that the systems were not on the up-and-up when water samples obtained directly by the agency showed unacceptable levels of total nitrogen contamination. Logically, the agency asked Shackleford for copies of his original test results; Shackleford repeatedly failed to provide them. When DEQ independently obtained the results, they discovered that the real total nitrogen concentrations were generally at least three times higher than those reported by Shackleford, and in some cases were 10, 15 or 20 times higher. This faulty arithmetic raised the ears of the FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency's Crinimal Investigation Division, who formed the case against Shackleford.

DEQ regional health administrator Michael McGown said in a press release that the water levels should not raise public health concerns and that there is no evidence that any local drinking water or wells had been affected by Shackleford's alleged negligence. The trial will commence on June 29.