Federal prosecutors argue Roto-Rooter dumped grease into Mobile’s sewer system

As part of a public awareness campaign, MAWSS has handed out grease containers to get people to stop pouring grease down the drain. Federal prosecutors are now alleging that the local Roto-Rooter has dumped thousands of gallons of grease back into the sewer system after collecting it from area restaurants. Grease can clog pipes and lead to raw sewage spills.

MOBILE, Ala. —

In a decade-long conspiracy, Roto-Rooter repeatedly dumped grease into
Mobile’s sewer system — potentially causing raw sewage spills — while charging
fees to area restaurants on the false promise that waste was being properly
disposed, federal prosecutors argued today.

In response, attorneys for Roto-Rooter told a jury that blame should rest on
two employees who cheated the system for financial and personal gain, saying the
company’s management wasn’t involved with or aware of any fraud.

One of those former employees, Michael L. Edington, previously pleaded guilty
to his role in the alleged conspiracy.

DHS Inc., owner of the local Roto-Rooter franchise, general manger William
Wilmoth Sr., and president Donald Gregory Smith face charges of conspiracy, mail
fraud, and violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Testimony began in U.S. District Judge Kristi DuBose’s courtroom today in front of a 10-man, 4-woman jury.

Jeremy Korzenik, a senior trial attorney in the Justice Department’s
environmental crimes section, said in opening arguments that Roto-Rooter
interfered with efforts to keep polluted water out of Mobile Bay “by promising
to dispose of the waste safely and legally while doing exactly the opposite.”

In 1999, Mobile Baykeeper, an environmental watchdog group, sued the Mobile
Area Water and Sewer System over sewage spills, many of those caused by grease
buildups in the sewer pipes.

Under a 2002 consent decree that settled the lawsuit, MAWSS has required
restaurants and caterers to install special traps to prevent grease from
entering the massive system of collection pipes. The businesses must hire
approved companies to haul away the grease.

Then, the grease is supposed to be dumped at an authorized disposal site, such
as the MAWSS-owned Williams Wastewater Treatment Plant on McDuffie Island,
according to testimony.

The indictment claims that employees for Roto-Rooter dumped as much as 4,000
gallons of grease at a time into manholes, back into grease traps and into other
points of access to the sewage system between 1997 and 2008.

It also alleges that records were falsified to show proper disposal. Local
restaurants such as Cracker Barrel, Felix’s Fish Camp, and other fast food
chains were listed on the records, according to the indictment.

Charles Potts, an attorney for DHS Roto-Rooter, said pump truck drivers, who
handled a small share of the company’s business, were responsible for picking up
grease from their clients every day, on their own.

Company leaders “put their trust in these two men to do what they were
supposed to do,” Potts said, adding that Roto-Rooter had 150 employees in total. 

He said Smith, as company president, fired Edington as soon as he learned
about the employee’s conduct in 2006, and he also wrote a letter to MAWSS about
what he had discovered. 

Before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, grease was being hauled to a City of
Chickasaw disposal site, where there was often no operator to take the
shipments, and truck drivers used an “honor system,” Potts said. 

Defense attorneys also noted that the truck drivers worked on commission,
meaning the more grease pumped, the more the driver was paid. 

Edington pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy and mail fraud as part of a
deal with prosecutors that includes an offer of leniency in exchange for his
cooperation. 

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