Robert Olson

Robert Olson's booking mug

It's not often that a city employee of a utilities plant acts out in a way that causes a facility to go offline and threatens the safety of first responders, much less co-workers.

In fact, utility directors and city representatives from around the East Valley said the case of Robert Olson, the 43-year-old plant operator who methodically shut off systems at the Greenfield Wastewater Treatment Plant in Gilbert two weeks ago taking the plant offline for a few hours, is rare and they had never heard of such a case in the Valley.

Police said Olson was suicidal, and during the 911 call he made to report what he had done, he told the dispatcher that he had lost his home to foreclosure and had filed for bankruptcy.

On Monday, Olson was indicted by a Maricopa County grand jury on charges of an intentional act of terrorism, criminal damage, burglary and control of a weapon to further an act of terrorism, according to information from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

Then, on Friday, a worker at Palo Verde Nuclear Plant in Wintersburg about 50 miles west of downtown Phoenix, was arrested and could face felony charges after making a flippant comment that he might have a bomb in his car, causing police to scour his vehicle as a precautionary measure.

Cities have umbrella policies in place to deal with employees engaging in unlawful or inappropriate behavior, and sometimes conduct drills and mock disaster scenarios to see how well they are prepared to deal with an incident that could interrupt water or utility service to thousands of customers.

Most said they are satisfied with their level of readiness if a worker were to get out of hand and do not plan to make any major changes to safeguards now in place, many of which were fortified in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Police and fire will always be our first responders if such an incident were to happen with a worker," said Mesa spokesman Steven Wright. "At the Greenfield plant, there are some built-in monitoring systems that trigger indicators and alarms to let others know what's going on, and workers were able to get inside the plant soon after the incident to avoid any major impact on operations. When the Greenfield Wastewater Treatment Plant went offline, it was during a low-use time and that probably helped lower the impact of any damage that could've caused."

On changing or improving safeguards against employees who may cause problems in the workplace, Wright said, "The city is always in the process of evaluating and re-evaluating policies in plants."

Gilbert is continuing to investigate the incident at Greenfield from April 1 before it decides whether any changes will be made, according to information from the town.

Olson's actions caused methane gas to build up inside the plant before safeguard mechanisms kicked in to alleviate the pressure.

Yet, he called 911 and told a dispatcher that the plant could blow up and take out one-fourth of a city block.

Luckily, the plant covers a 70-acre property in the middle of a field and homes are far from it. Members of the Gilbert Police Department's SWAT team were able to apprehend Olson, who had climbed to the top of one of the buildings, without incident.

Police believe he was mentally unstable and under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to a Gilbert police report.

About a week before Olson's arrest, Chandler, Arizona's fourth-largest city, held drills at its water treatment plants that involved scenarios of e-coli in the water which requires the city to issue a boil alert; a plane crashing into a plant; and a terrorist attack knocking out pump stations, causing an interruption to its 72,000 water customers.

Dave Siegel, director of utilities for Chandler since 2001, said he does not plan to change any safeguards now in place for his department because he believes they are up to par. By using bleach instead of chlorine gas and not storing it at the plant, a safer environment has been created and eliminated a potential weapon, city officials believe.

Chandler spokesman Jim Phipps told the Tribune that although most of the city's focus is on outsiders or people who shouldn't be in the plants, Chandler does have policies in place against workers engaging in unlawful or inappropriate activity.

One of the requests Chandler can make of a city employee is to undergo a psychological evaluation if behavior becomes erratic, noticeably inconsistent or consistently causes problems with co-workers.

"People are in sensitive positions, and there's lots of stresses people have," Phipps said. "There's the bad economy, people have health issues, something can be going on at home. Supervisors have to know their people, and have a pulse on their mental health, to help prevent someone who was normal on Friday from coming in on Monday and doing something."

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