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April 4, 2003
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Whistleblower wins lawsuit

Judge orders WTI worker reinstated to job at incinerator

Friday, April 04, 2003

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Donna Trueblood worked on the "drum crew" at the WTI hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, not beating music time but keeping track of barrels of incoming waste.

In February 2002, Trueblood told the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency that her employer, VonRoll America, was accepting hazardous wastes it was not permitted to incinerate and storing drums of chemical waste on a parking lot at the adjacent Heritage Environmental Services, a separate waste transfer facility that has an ownership interest in the incinerator.

VonRoll fired Trueblood in October 2002 for, it said, exceeding her sick day limit. But federal Administrative Law Judge Richard Morgan ruled last week that she was unlawfully terminated for blowing the whistle on those illegal waste handling practices.

Morgan's 60-page decision scolds VonRoll for concocting a story to cover up Trueblood's termination, and awards her $50,000 for back pay and $125,000 in exemplary damages.

He also ordered WTI to reinstate her to her job, but added that her return to work would be a "terrible mistake" and urged the company and Trueblood to reach a different, mutually acceptable settlement.

VonRoll has filed notice that it will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Department of Labor's Administrative Review Board in Washington, D.C.

Raymond Wayne, a WTI spokesman, said it is the company's policy not to comment on pending cases or appeals. He said any action on Trueblood's reinstatement is on hold pending the outcome of the appeal.

Richard Renner, Trueblood's attorney, said he contacted the company last Friday about her reinstatement but has had no response. He said provisions of the federal Energy Reorganization Act require that Trueblood be reinstated and given back pay even though the appeal is pending.

"She can't wait forever. She's about to lose her home in East Liverpool and she's flat run out of money," Renner said. "She's really suffered for taking the stand that she did."

The WTI incinerator, in East Liverpool's poor East End neighborhood along the Ohio River, 30 miles west of Pittsburgh, has been a lightning rod for safety and health concerns since plans for its construction were announced in the early 1980s. Despite strong opposition, the $140 million incinerator was built 400 yards from an elementary school and finally opened in 1993.

Incinerator opponents have seized on the waste handling irregularities reported by Trueblood as confirming their fears about dangerous practices at the incinerator that operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day, burning 60,000 tons of hazardous waste a year.

Trueblood, worked in the waste industry since 1991 in her home state of Louisiana, as well as in Texas, Iowa and California before getting a job at WTI in 1998. She said she doesn't share the concerns of the incinerator opponents, as long as the business operates by the rules.

"Incineration for the types of waste WTI handles is the best technology we have," Trueblood, 39, said. "Some of the WTI waste is 'two-stepper' stuff, meaning if you get a whiff of it you can take two steps and you're gone. I can't see landfilling that kind of stuff, but I believe they could handle it better."

Trueblood said the initial complaint to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio EPA about WTI's waste handling irregularities came from another person at the facility, but when the agencies contacted her at home she told them what she knew.

She told the agencies that WTI was storing hazardous wastes off-site at Heritage Environmental open-air parking lot and had accepted shipments of bromoform and 100 percent benzene that it did not have a permit to incinerate.

She said the waste handling irregularities happened on "multiple occasions," but she documented only one occasion for the investigating agencies.

Benzene is a widely used industrial chemical and a known human carcinogen.

Bromoform was used in the past as a solvent and flame retardant, or to make other chemicals. It is now used mainly as a laboratory reagent. Overexposure affects the central nervous system causing unconsciousness, loss of reflexes, shallow breathing, erratic heart rate, and respiratory failure.

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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