The Pearl River is currently at flood stage and is expected to crest at 30 feet Friday. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A Pearl man pleaded guilty this week for his role in allowing a Brandon company to illegally dump its waste into Jackson’s worn-down sewer system.

The U.S. Department of Justice is alleging that leadership of the company, Gold Coast Commodities (GCC), intentionally deceived local and state officials about how it was disposing of its waste.

As part of its deception, the DOJ’s indictments against GCC allege, the company used businesses in Jackson to dispose of its wastewater there after officials in Brandon, where GCC is located, told the company it was illegally discharging into Brandon’s sewer system.

William Roberts, 44, an employee at one of the Jackson businesses, Partridge-Sibley Industrial Services Inc., on Tuesday pleaded guilty to charges that he “negligently introduced and caused” GCC’s waste to be discharged into Jackson’s sewer system.

But Roberts is just one in a group of alleged bad actors the DOJ has investigated.

Water flows through the low head dam at waterworks curve on the Pearl River Wednesday, October 17, 2018 near Mayes Lake Campground in Jackson. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Last month, the DOJ indicted GCC president Thomas Douglas Jr. and plant manager John Welch Sr. with felony charges of illegal disposal. A week prior, the company’s co-owner and vice president, Robert Davis Douglas, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of unlawful pollution. The indictments also charge Thomas Douglas and Welch with conspiracy to defraud the government and giving false statements.

GCC, which converts animal fats and greases into biofuel, has violated clean water statutes several times spanning nearly two decades. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality first cited GCC with a violation in 2002 for allowing waste to reach state waters.

In 1995, MDEQ gave GCC a permit to dispose in public sewer systems as long as the company pretreated its waste to limit certain pollutants, according to the federal indictments. That permit expired in 2000.

In 2016, Brandon city officials told GCC that pollutants were found at the company’s outfall leading into Brandon’s sewer system, which led into Jackson’s sewer system. Even if GCC had a proper permit to use the cities’ sewer systems, the pollutants found — suspended solids, bio-oxygen demand, and oil and grease — were still at levels hundreds of times higher than the legal threshold, the DOJ’s indictment shows.

After MDEQ issued the company a violation for the discharges, Douglas, GCC’s president, falsely told Brandon and state officials that the company never discharged into the city’s sewer system, the indictment says.

About a month later, Douglas reached out to Andrew Walker, owner of Rebel High Velocity Sewer Services in Jackson, asking him to dispose of GCC’s waste into Jackson’s sewer system because of GCC’s recent run-in with state regulators, the DOJ alleges.

Water flows through the low head dam at waterworks curve on the Pearl River Wednesday, October 17, 2018 near Mayes Lake Campground in Jackson. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Walker complied and helped GCC dispose of about 3 million gallons of untreated industrial waste into Jackson’s sewer system. Rebel High took on GCC’s waste disposal for about 10 months, according to the indictment, until MDEQ discovered the ploy in October 2017 and ordered GCC to cease and desist.

Walker pleaded guilty in January 2021 to federal pollution charges for his role in the matter.

In 2018, GCC requested permission from MDEQ to build a lagoon to use as a wastewater disposal site. MDEQ granted GCC the permitting in 2019.

But MDEQ soon found infractions at the new facility. The agency detected odors from the disposal lagoon that constitute a “public nuisance,” and found that GCC hadn’t installed aerators for the facility. MDEQ issued the company a violation in 2019, and another one in 2020, for failures at the site.

In April 2021, the state issued a $505,000 fine against GCC over its wastewater handling.

Meanwhile, Jackson is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to bring the sewer system into federal compliance with the Clean Water Act. The city’s broken infrastructure results in untreated sewage regularly flowing into the Pearl River, and officials last year estimated it’ll take nearly a billion dollars to bring Jackson into compliance.

Jackson is suing GCC for damaging their infrastructure, estimating $15 million in damages. Brandon also filed a lawsuit against the company, although its case was dismissed earlier this year.

In a statement from GCC, the company said, “there was no reason to believe that Rebel High Velocity was improperly disposing of wastewater after leaving our facility.”

“At the end of the day, we hired an expert to protect the environment and surrounding communities,” the statement said. “The mistake made here was to fully trust that Rebel High Velocity followed their stated process and lawfully did the job they were hired to do.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify what charge Robert David Douglas pleaded guilty to. It has also been updated with a statement from Gold Coast Commodities.

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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.