Erin Brockovich criticizes Oklahoma City’s new wastewater treatment company

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OKLAHOMA CITY - City leaders have selected a once troubled company to handle Oklahoma City's wastewater treatment, a company that has repeatedly drawn the ire of famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich.

Severn Trent Services has won a contract with Oklahoma City, less than six months after the Journal-Record reported its shortcomings in the Choctaw County city of Hugo.

"They had some controversy with the Hugo situation, and we looked into that thoroughly," said Oklahoma City Councilman Pete White, who also chairs the city's Water Utility Trust. "We're convinced that they were the best bid, the most responsive bid, the most economical bid, and we believe they will do the job."

For more than 300 days, people in Hugo had discolored drinking water that was not treated with enough chlorine and potentially contained deadly viruses and bacteria.

The Department of Environmental Quality issued Severn Trent three notices of violation in June 2015 and fined it more than $3 million.

Brockovich promoted the cause on her Facebook page in August.

White said the controversy "absolutely" gave him pause in pursuing the contract, but he conducted a thorough investigation into the company and is satisfied with what he found, telling NewsChannel 4 Hugo was not the only place with a water problem, though it received all the publicity.

He also said Oklahoma City's facilities are more state of the art.

"We did all the due diligence you can do to check out the situation," he said.

Debbie Ragan, a spokesperson for Oklahoma City's utilities department, said she's "confident" Severn Trent has made changes after what happened in Hugo, noting the company will not be in charge of the city's drinking water.

Ragan said wastewater is held to lower environmental standards.

The city will monitor Severn Trent's work at its four wastewater facilities.

A spokeswoman for Severn Trent referred NewsChannel 4 to Oklahoma City officials for comment.

In a memo to the Water Utility Trust, a representative of Severn Trent wrote: "The challenges at Hugo caused us to reassess and bolster quality assurance and compliance processes in all of the plants we operate. We are a better, stronger and more focused company for having gone through the experience."

The memo notes the company has made several changes since the August incident, including hiring more managers, requiring more training for its employees and developing a new quality assurance plan.

Severn Trent beat out two other proposals for the contract, including Veolia Water, which currently holds the contract.

Severn Trent's bid came at a 10.5 percent lower cost than its competitors.

A city report said none of the bidders were completely free of regulatory compliance issues.