Three weeks into his job as a pump maintenance worker at Seattle Public Utilities, Dan Dunlop went to a U District facility to learn how to fix a wastewater pump. He and a superior, Leonard Wheeler, turned off the pump, at which point Wheeler left for another part of the station, giving Dunlop instructions to stand in front of the pump and monitor it for unusual activity.
Dunlop stared at the pump. Suddenly, sewage sprayed out of it and onto his face. “I got totally soaked in effluent. Effluent is a nice word for poo,” says Dunlop, who believes Wheeler turned the pump back on knowing it would spurt all over him. Wheeler came back laughing, says Dunlop. “He was like, ‘Well, I guess that’s your initiation!”
Dunlop still works for SPU as a maintenance worker, though he isn’t enjoying the job very much. In September, he filed a lawsuit against SPU and Wheeler, seeking claims for emotional damages, violation of a whistle-blower act, and other grievances. In the suit, Dunlop, who’s 35 and lives in Everett, blames his ex-boss, Wheeler, for an alleged practical joke that released sewage into a West Seattle neighborhood on Christmas Day 2005, an occurrence that SPU publicly blamed on excessive rain.
More seriously, Dunlop says that devices meant to keep sewage from entering the city’s drinking-water supply consistently failed inspections in 2006 and 2007, which he claims SPU has yet to remedy.
Last year, SPU had Dunlop test its backflow assemblies, which are intricate valve-and-pipe devices that help prevent contaminants from entering potable water. Dunlop decided that 11 assemblies weren’t up to code. He didn’t test all of them to see if they were working properly, but instead failed them outright because of improper design and location, such as in flood-prone pits or rooms containing toxic fumes. As Dunlop points out in his lawsuit, this runs afoul of state regulations because assembly units contain air vents.
Backflow assemblies aren’t the only safeguards in the system, but they are important enough that the state requires them at all wastewater facilities. Yet as of August, 40 such Seattle locations didn’t have any assemblies installed. The state has given SPU a Nov. 19 deadline to install the missing devices or come up with a plan to do so.
In September, Dunlop failed many of the same assemblies that he did in 2006, which compelled SPU to get a second opinion. “They sent another tester out, and he went out and passed them,” says Dunlop. “It’s just a complete snow job, that’s what it is.”
Hired by SPU in 2005, Dunlop was responsible in part for the mechanical upkeep of the city’s 68 wastewater pumps. He worked most days with Wheeler, a senior pump-station machinist. The two men didn’t get along.
“Leonard’s first words to me were, ‘Get in the truck,'” Dunlop wrote in a long letter addressed to the head of SPU, the mayor, and other government officials early last year. Dunlop accuses Wheeler of hazing him. “Leonard turned to me and said, ‘Here’s the deal. I’m the boss and you’re just the help. I so much as snap my fingers, and your ass is fired.'”
One of Dunlop’s claims involves an incident where Wheeler allegedly decided to teach a lesson to two employees who had gone AWOL from a West Seattle wastewater facility. According to Dunlop’s lawsuit, Wheeler tried to flood their tools with sewage. Instead, on Dec. 25, 2005, Wheeler wound up flooding homes near 24th Avenue Southwest and Henderson Street, two blocks from the wastewater facility in question.
“I can imagine being 4 years old, waking up Christmas morning, and the Christmas tree’s covered in poo and rags and toilet paper,” says Dunlop.
The Christmas mishap wound up costing the city more than a half-million dollars in property-damage claims, according to city documents. SPU spokesperson Andy Ryan wouldn’t comment on the cause of the flooding, and Wheeler says the alleged prank “didn’t happen” (he’s similarly dismissive of Dunlop’s other claims). But Dunlop is adamant it did, and refers to some 1,500 pages of notes he’s taken during his SPU tenure. Furthermore, an outside investigation conducted by MFR Law Group found that it was “likely” Wheeler engaged in misconduct at that particular facility.
Before coming to SPU, Dunlop was a garbage truck driver for Waste Management of Washington, a private contractor. There, Dunlop crushed a man who had been resting in a Safeway trash bin in 2000, and later sued his employer to pay for complications and treatment stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder.
As he wrote in court documents: “I looked toward the top of the truck near the bonnet, and could see that a person was crushed in between the blade and the bonnet. I looked down and could see that his waste [sic] was no more that [sic] 2 inches wide and was under enormous pressure. He looked like his eyes were about to explode out of his face. I kept telling him that he was just pinched and that help was on the way to get him un-stuck, at that time I heard a pop kind of sound and saw something poking out from under his skin towards his stomach area.”
Though his employer didn’t dispute the crushing or the PTSD, Dunlop lost the case, in part because of a three-year time gap between the incident and his psychological diagnosis. But Dunlop remains hypersensitive to stressful work conditions—conditions like being submerged in a giant pool of human waste, which he says happened in January 2006.
According to Dunlop’s current lawsuit, he and another man were working at the bottom of a pump-station pit when Wheeler turned on the sewage flow. An open valve erupted with a geyser of water, urine, feces, and various chemicals of the commode. Dunlop was coated to his midriff. Outside the pit, he stripped naked and rubbed bleach and hand sanitizer over his entire body, with a special focus on his private parts.
“Even if it’s not possible to get AIDS from something like that, that’s what you’re thinking,” says Dunlop, who later tested temporarily reactive for hepatitis A. “You’ve basically just slept with everybody in the neighborhood.” Dunlop says he learned months later from outside investigators that Wheeler had taken pictures of him struggling in the muck and distributed them throughout SPU’s SoDo offices.
The investigators’ 2006 report concluded that “while it cannot be definitely proven that Mr. Wheeler deliberately created situations in which co-workers and/or their tools were subjected to ‘sewage baths,’ there is evidence such events occurred and if not deliberate, they at least resulted from gross negligence on Mr. Wheeler’s part.”
Wheeler recently left SPU. “I signed a thing [with the city] saying I wouldn’t say anything about anything,” he says. “So that’s about it.”