Bay Area Air Management District improperly destroys pollution docs, whistleblowers say

Two former employees of the Bay Area Air Management District have filed a claim accusing the government agency of destroying sensitive documents.

On Wednesday, 2 Investigates spoke to Michael Bachmann who was in charge of the Air District’s documents and records retention system and Sarah Steele who was his assistant. Both said they were fired after alerting higher-ups of suspicions that records were being destroyed. The pair has filed a wrongful termination claim, a precursor to filing a formal lawsuit, against the Air District.

“Maintaining those records are the only way we can regulate and enforce air quality regulations in the Bay Area,” said Eustace De St. Phalle, an attorney representing Steele.

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Steele said during the summer of 2015, the Air District was moving locations and she and Bachmann were in charge of documenting records. She said she was taking inventory of items in the agency’s former garage at 939 Ellis Street in San Francisco. Steele said she found a filing cabinet full of documents.

“Those documents had notice of violations, asbestos, settlements which are also permanent records,” she said. “Once I found this cabinet I tried to figure out who the contents belonged to and what was in them. I was approached by general counsel for the District…I was not allowed to do inventory on the cabinet or do anything with it. And then I was directed to take the contents back and place them in an unsecure room in the Ellis Street garage again.”

Steele said she told her supervisor, Michael Bachman, of this interaction and other similar ones. He told 2 Investigates he looked into the case and also suspected documents were being destroyed.

Bachmann said legal counsel approached him and said, “’…it was okay if staff was destroying documents, and it could hurt us if we had an inventory with the records being estroyed.’ This didn’t sit well with me or my staff.’”

Steele, who has hired attorney Eustace de St. Phalle, and Bachmann, who is represented by J. Gary Gwilliam, both said they were fired shortly after raising these concerns.

2 Investigate reached out to the Bay Area Air Management District. A spokesperson said they could not comment on the former employees departures from the agency citing personnel issues. The spokesperson released a statement:

“The Air District is committed to transparency. The public's right to review records is vital to our responsibility to protect air quality in the nine-county region. The data that former employees of the Air District have accused the agency of destroying are in fact, all available in electronic format and available for public review. For nearly 30 years, the Air District has retained information in an electronic database for all notices of violation, facility complaints, investigation documents and correspondence. All allegations were thoroughly investigated by an independent, third party investigator and were determined to be false and without merit.” Kristine Roselius, Communications Manager/Bay Area Air Quality Management District

2 Investigates asked for specific documents Bachmann and Steele suspect were destroyed. The documents are a detailed mutual settlement penalty calculation of Tosco Corp, Avon Refinery dated January 14, 1991.

The communications manager for the Air District responded, “The mutual settlement penalty calculation document you are referring to was a query done by someone back in 1990 and shows a list of previous NOVs. The query was done on a system we no longer use.”

2 Investigates also learned public documents themselves are not available on the Air District’s website, but they do have a section on their website where the public can request documents.

Steele and Bachmann's claim is a precursor to a lawsuit. The government will have a limited amount of time to respond before a lawsuit can be filed.