City Fires Health and Safety Whistleblower

Wednesday, February 13, 2019, 7:47 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

The City of East Lansing has fired Troy Williams, the wastewater treatment plant worker who blew the whistle on a major mercury spill at the plant. Williams also brought to light the City’s seven-year-long failure to act on a detailed report showing that the plant was riddled with crumbling, dangerous asbestos.

Multiple independent investigations including by MIOSHA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality proved Williams was right: the City had failed to provide workers required hazardous materials training; had failed to properly clean-up hazardous waste; and had failed to protect workers.

Problems persisted even then, and, as the LSJ reported, workers kept making complaints that were supported by additional State investigations.

Williams has now been diagnosed with asbestosis, a lung disease caused by long-term asbestos exposure. According to detailed paperwork shared with ELi, pulmonary specialist physicians have found that Williams has “reactive airway disease which is most likely due to his previous work at a waste water treatment plant for the past 20 years [where he] has experienced asbestos exposure for the last 8 years during his time in the position as well as other work-related chemical exposure.”

Williams also has a torn bicep tendon from moving material at the plant by hand in 2017. He says the arm injury occurred after he reported to officials that a crane ordinarily used to the move material had not been inspected, as required by law, and he and another worker were told to hoist a heavy object by hand. Surgery did not solve this work-related arm injury.

Extensive medical paperwork shown to ELi by Williams indicates he can work a normal-length work day and generally function as an employee of East Lansing. He just can’t lift heavy objects with his right arm, and he can’t risk more lung exposure to noxious fumes or substances.

He’s willing to work any job that accommodates these restrictions. He notes he has a commercial driving license, so he can drive trucks. While he was in physical therapy, the City was able to find “light duty” jobs for Williams to do.

But now the City of East Lansing says they can’t find any job in the City for Williams. He has received a letter from Shelli Neumann, the Director of Human Resources who succeeded now-City Manager George Lahanas in that job. Neumann writes, “You are unable to return to work without restrictions that we can accommodate.”

Williams was the lead plaintiff in the case nine workers at the wastewater treatment plant brought against the City for allegedly endangering them through the unmanaged asbestos problem and the events surrounding the accidental spill of about a half-cup of liquid mercury in November 2013. That spill went unreported as a supervisor (later terminated) tried to clean the mercury up with duct tape, ordinary shop vacs, and by washing some of it down the drains.

At one point, Williams was ordered to pull the trap from the sink where mercury had spilled. Williams pulled out his phone and took the following photo. He says the trap shown to the left is about 4 inches in external diameter. The shiny material at the center of the photo is the spilled mercury.

The trap and mercury are shown in an ordinary plastic bag that Williams was told to throw in a dumpster, shown below. Williams says he knew what they were doing was not right, and that’s why he finally called officials in early 2014 – out of fear for his health and the health of people in the City.

A major investigation by ELi using the Freedom of Information Act showed that at least some of the mercury was in all likelihood landfilled, representing a significant environmental contamination. Some was driven around town in a City-owned truck. Some ended up in shop vacs used to blow out heating vents at the Hannah Community Center. Our investigtaion showed that Lahanas and Neumann worked on "squelching rumors" that might have caused the public to be worried about what had happened.

Testimony collected in the workers’ suit against the City repeatedly supported Williams’ and other workers’ contention that there were major failures in terms of adherence to environmental and safety regulations at the plant. But the uphill battle the plaintiffs faced was having to prove “intentional tort” – that City managers purposefully set out to hurt the workers.

In June of last year, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled for the City, saying that the workers could not show intentional tort. But the judges did not mince words about what they saw as having happened at the plant. The judges wrote:

“It is admittedly stunning that a maintenance supervisor and a plant superintendent would be so uninformed about how to handle the hazardous materials around which they and their employees work. As was the case with the WWTP’s [wastewater treatment plant’s] statutory violations involving asbestos containing material, authorities rightly cited and fined East Lansing for not having in place an emergency plan to handle such spills, not informing employees of the spill, and not properly cleaning the spill.”

The City spent $200,000 on lawyers to fight the workers in the lawsuit. The workers got nothing.

Just before the suit was dismissed, City Manager George Lahanas told ELi, “To date, none of the employees who are plaintiffs in this lawsuit have suffered any wage loss or needed medical care as a result of a work-related injury or illness.” The workers’ attorney, Neal Wilensky, told ELi Lahanas was lying and showed paperwork to support his claim.

Lahanas has declined to answer questions from ELi about Williams’ termination. City Council takes up a possible contract extension and raise for Lahanas tonight.

Meanwhile, besides terminating his employment, the City now says Williams owes the City over $12,000 in insurance reimbursements.

Williams, 45-years-old, tells ELi he isn’t sure what he is going to do. His job through East Lansing allowed him to purchase a house in the Saginaw area, which he’s concerned he could now lose. He has filed for unemployment benefits.