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A former Billings city chemist must pay tens of thousands of dollars in restitution for contaminating a co-worker’s water samples and sitting by while the city spent months trying to uncover the source of the problem.

Michelle Henderson was ordered to pay $38,911 to the city of Billings in testing and equipment costs. She’ll also have to notify state licensing boards of her conviction when applying to renew her professional licenses.

Henderson contaminated one of her two co-worker’s samples for roughly three months in 2015, using a substance found in the lab.

That left the three-chemist division and their supervisor scrambling to figure out why samples pulled before drinking water was sent to Billings residents repeatedly failed safety tests.

The contamination was confined to co-worker Katie Hendrickson’s samples and did not affect the city’s drinking water.

Hendrickson said it seemed like the more she worked to resolve the problem, the worse the contamination got. She said eventually her work would see contamination multiple times a day at “unbelievable levels.”

“It was kind of the scenario of everything that I touched just was contaminated and would not work,” she said.

Hendrickson repeatedly checked her equipment, retested samples and requested oversight from her supervisor to ensure she was doing the tests correctly. Appeals to the manufacturer also yielded no answers, she said. Experts flew to Billings to examine the equipment in person, Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson said she once sat down in Henderson’s office and said she didn’t feel like she deserved a paycheck, due to the failed tests, and that she feared she looked incompetent.

Henderson should have stopped then but didn't, Hendrickson said. 

She gave a tearful apology, turning to face her former co-worker and boss in the gallery. She said she chose to sabotage her co-worker’s samples because she had a strong work ethic and was bothered that others in her office did not, and she was “trying to bring light to” workplace practices she did not agree with.

“I have a very good work ethic, and when I go to work, I work,” Henderson said. “I don’t sit around and talk. I don’t buddy buddy. I work.”

Henderson called her reaction “stupid” and said she regretted it.

District Court Judge Michael Moses followed a joint recommendation for a three-year deferred sentence but said the crime was serious.

“You were 6 inches away from contaminating the water system of the community of a 100,000 people plus,” Moses said. “That’s just unfathomable, and that’s a horrific breach of public trust. But, thank goodness you had enough sense not to do that.”

The restitution covered $32,144 the city paid to replace the water testing machine it believed was faulty; $1,044 to purchase video surveillance equipment for the lab once officials suspected the contamination was intentional; and $5,723 for additional testing.

Henderson resigned after being placed on administrative leave in 2015.

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.