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Citations likely in plant fatality

The city of Spokane is likely to receive 14 citations and violations over worker safety issues as the result of a state investigation into a fatal accident May 10 at the city’s wastewater treatment plant in North Spokane.

Investigators from the Washington Department of Labor and Industries held what’s called a “closing conference” with city officials Friday on a six-month investigation into circumstances surrounding an explosion at one of three sewage treatment “digesters.”

The accident claimed the life of maintenance mechanic Mike Cmos Jr., 46, and injured three other workers. Cmos had climbed onto the roof of the tank to control a sudden overflow of partially treated sewage. Witnesses said the roof violently separated from the tank and collapsed into it. Cmos’ body was recovered two days later from the bottom of the tank after most of its slurry-like sludge had been removed.

State investigators will submit their recommendations to the Olympia office of labor and industries for a final determination on citations and potential fines. The findings are expected by Nov. 8.

“We’ve worked cooperatively with the department. We appreciate the department’s efforts,” Mayor Jim West said on Friday. “We take the findings they will issue very seriously.”

He said the city would move quickly to remedy any problems the department uncovered, but the city also is reserving its option to appeal if necessary.

According to a press release from West’s office, the violations revolve around the adequacy of written operating procedures; the availability of information on new technology; analysis of potential hazards; and employee training in those areas.

The plant, which processes sewage solids into a safe fertilizer byproduct, had undergone modifications over the previous year to improve its efficiency. Problems with the new system were reported in the weeks leading up to the accident.

A final report is also expected next month on a separate city-financed investigation into the cause of the accident. Exponent Failure Analysis Associates of Menlo Park, Calif., is expected to provide explanations on the cause of the accident and recommendations on how to prevent another one from occurring. The tank failure in May is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country, West said.

West also has appointed a citizens oversight panel, which will review the findings stemming from the investigations. Three of the panel’s five members attended the closing conference on Friday.

The mayor said investigations so far have not uncovered any serious wrongdoing by plant workers and supervisors. “I don’t think anybody is going to find any evidence of gross negligence,” West said.

Elaine Fisher, a spokeswoman for labor and industries, said findings may – or may not – include fines. General citations carry no fines. Serious violations carry fines of up to $7,000 each, while willful violations carry fines that are 10 times that amount. The average fine is $1,200, she said.

Marlene Feist, the city’s public affairs officer, said state investigators are recommending a combination of general citations and serious violations, but no willful violations.


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