The YMCA, as a non-profit corporation, pleaded guilty to four felony counts and one misdemeanor that involved a hazardous waste spill, which occurred two years ago in Santee that also went into a storm drain.
The Board of Directors for the county-wide YMCA hired former District Attorney Paul Pfingst, who represented them Friday. Approximately seven directors and employees were in the audience when San Diego Superior Court Judge Polly Shamoon placed the YMCA on two years probation.
The terms of probation affect all YMCA facilities in the county. The judge ordered all YMCA facilities to allow unannounced inspections by the county Department of Environmental Health and to improve its procedures for handling hazardous materials.
Pfingst filed documents noting the YMCA has since paid $705,053 in facility improvements such as new chemical pumps, chemical monitoring systems, berms surrounding chemical storage areas, and remodeling pump room doors.
“The YMCA is changing its entire culture and organization to try to respond to provide better aquatic safety inside the pool,” said Pfingst to the judge.
“These people,” said Pfingst, gesturing to the audience, “have worked tirelessly to put these changes in effect.”
Also sentenced to three years probation was Lee Joseph Ladley, 64, the YMCA facilities director who now is the YMCA director for one facility in Spring Valley.
Ladley was fined $6,150, and given credit for one day in jail for a previous booking when he and the YMCA were first charged on Oct. 19, 2016 by the City of San Diego District Attorney’s office.
On Oct. 20, 2015, a tube which carried chlorine from a storage tank to a swimming pool broke and came into contact with another acidic chemical. Chlorine gas fumes in a plume drifted to the nearby Rio Seco Elementary School in Santee.
Students sensed a bleach-like smell and 79 students and eight adults were treated for nausea, burning eyes and skin, and shortness of breath in the parking lot of a hospital.
Pfingst informed the judge the YMCA has already paid $11,482 in medical costs for the victims, and $37,416 in two other agencies’ expenses in the incident. Shamoon ordered them to pay $321 in medical costs for two adults.
The judge granted the motion by Pfingst and Ladley’s attorney, Michael Berg, to reduce all the felony convictions to misdemeanors.
“There has been great progress made,” said Shamoon.
Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth McClutchey objected to the charges being reduced, saying “The YMCA has not done what they need to do.”
“They were still having violations a month, 1 1/2 months, two months after this horrific event,” said McClutchey. “It didn’t open their eyes well enough.”
Sharon Preece, an environmental protection expert, testified she inspected 11 YMCA facilities in the county and found violations at all of them. She said there were six employee training violations.
Preece said they had taken steps to improve the facilities, but they have not put an overall plan into practice.
McClutchey said a YMCA employee discovered the chlorine spill and tried to contain it without informing others of the problem until later. Pfingst said the YMCA has since conducted regular hazardous materials training for employees.
Shamoon said she will review the progress of the YMCA on March 7, 2018.
Attorneys said there are lawsuits pending. The San Diego County Air Pollution Control District is reviewing regulatory action and they could seek a $500,000 fine.