Fertilizer maker to pay $2 million to resolve felony case for pouring chemicals down drain

Cytozyme Laboratories poured chemicals down the drain on at least 40 occasions between January 2018 through March 2020.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cytozyme Laboratories 2700 S 600 W, in South Salt Lake, on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. The fertilizer make has agreed to pay $2 million in fines after pleading guilty to criminal environmental charges for pouring dangerous chemicals into the sewer lines for years.

In one of the largest fines ever levied for an environmental violation in Utah, a South Salt Lake fertilizer maker has agreed to pay $2 million to resolve felony charges filed in response to its pattern of dumping hazardous pollutants into sewer and stormwater systems in violation of Utah’s Water QualityAct.

Third District Judge Douglas Hogan on Wednesday accepted the plea deal signed by Cytozyme Laboratories CEO Kenneth Avery, who acknowledged his company flouted regulations by pouring restricted chemicals down the drain on at least 40 occasions between January 2018 through March 2020.

A whistleblower complaint brought the attention of the Salt Lake County Environmental Crimes Task Force, which surveilled the contents of the sewer line upstream and downstream of Cytozyme’s headquarters at 2700 S. 600 West.

Sampling found that the waste’s concentrations of copper and zinc exceeded limits by eight and 48 times, respectively, and the pH levels were highly corrosive, according to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. The probe resulted in two third-degree felony counts of illegal discharge of pollutants.

“You can’t jail corporations,” Gill said. “It is a financial hit that is going to serve as both a reminder and a deterrent to those who may engage in [environmental violations]. The criminal fine is consistent with what we believe to be the conduct….This is the largest disposition for a local prosecution [in Utah].”

The fine is three orders of magnitude larger than the fines Utah regulators typically impose oil and gas operators and coal mines for their environmental misdeeds. It rivals the $3.4 million the Utah Department of Environmental Quality imposed on the medical waste incinerator Stericyle for rigging stack tests at its North Salt Lake plant.

Last April, while Cytozyme was under investigation, it was acquired by Verdesian Life Sciences.

Although Cytozyme had purported to be a “zero discharge” facility and claimed as much in a filing with the local wastewater treatment plant, its employees discharged wastewater into the sewer on a near-daily basis, despite the presence of a sign over a sink warning that dumping corrosive pollutants down the drain is a crime, the charges allege.

“The nefarious nature of environmental crimes is that the victims may have yet to be born because this is leaking into the groundwater, it is leaching into different areas,” Gill said. “And that’s why environmental crimes require a deterrent value to the enforcement.”

Also charged with felonies were executives David Bitter, 61, and Anna Kolliopoulos, 58, the managing director of operations, who allegedly directed the scheme to divert wastewater down a drain. By secretly putting the waste into the sewer, the company avoided thousands in fees owed to the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility and contaminated the state’s waters. Those cases remain pending.

As part of the company’s deal, Cytozyme must meet various conditions during its three years on probation.

“Within that probationary period, we expect them to, of course, be properly permitted, have no unlawful discharges. They’re going to be subject to random inspections of their facilities,” Gill said. “And they have to maintain appropriate hazardous-waste records, which will be subject to unannounced visitations and checks. Our investigation found that there were pipes and piping systems that discharge directly into the water sewage systems and those are to be dismantled, as well.”

The company is also to pay $117,000 in restitution to the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility, the Salt Lake County Health Department, and the South Salt Lake Public Works. If it successfully completes the probation, the felony charges will be entered into the court record as class A misdemeanors.

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