The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found a chain of industrial refurbishing plants in the Milwaukee area violated federal law, the agency announced Wednesday. The EPA determined the plants in St. Francis, Oak Creek and Milwaukee were breaking the law by transporting, storing and treating hazardous waste without required licenses, among other violations. Once inside, investigators found a host of problems: barrels labeled as “non-hazardous” that contained flammable chemicals; drums leaking unknown chemicals onto the ground; milky white plumes of smoke puffing out of the St. Francis facility, creating a “standing haze;” and a barrel that workers said was for water, but actually contained ignitable hazardous waste. The inspections . . . uncovered a host of problems that endangered workers and residents living near the company’s plants in the Milwaukee area and three other states — Tennessee, Indiana and Arkansas.
These violations will most certainly lead to fines imposed by the EPA but these may lead to civil damages from local residents.
Workers at the plants told the Journal Sentinel that chemicals were routinely mixed together, triggering dangerous reactions that resulted in chemical and heat-related burns, injuries from exploding barrels, breathing difficulties and other health problems. Residents near the St. Francis plant say it is often miserable living there. Fumes result in burning eyes, sore throats and headaches, forcing them to stay in their homes at times. Three of the residents have filed a class-action lawsuit.
The EPA is the not the only agency investigating these practices:
The state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Department of Transportation together have uncovered three dozen violations. DOT has expanded its investigation to 13 plants all tied to Greif in nine states. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration found 15 violations at the Milwaukee facility and issued a $108,000 fine. OSHA continues to investigate the plants in Oak Creek and St. Francis but has not reported findings.
Hopefully, the workers and community members will receive compensation for the damages they have incurred as a result of these illegal practices.
Hidden at the conclusion of the article:
The Journal Sentinel findings were based on 16 hours of audio recordings by a whistle-blower; hundreds of pages of documents, including internal injury reports and safety audits; as well as public records and interviews with workers, regulators, and experts.
This whistleblower may be entitled to a portion of any fines. Some financial incentives do exist for select environmental whistleblowers under the current legal enforcement framework. In some instances, whistleblowers can claim significant rewards.
The False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. §3730(b) (2012) defines a whistleblower as “a person [to] bring a civil action for violation of [the False Claims Act]”). Its lists the types of persons who may be whistleblowers including employees, non-employees, competitors, corporations, and public interest groups, among others. Basically, claims of this type must involve federal funds. Typically, these provisions allow a person to commence a civil action against any person alleged to have committed a violation of the statute. In such instances, the whistleblower is entitled to between 15% and 25% of any settlement.
In other instances, Congress has also allowed citizen lawsuits to compel the government to act is required. Unfortunately, the financial incentives for whistleblowers present are not found in all environmental statutes. For example, some statutes allow the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to pay discretionary rewards to persons “furnish[ing] information or services leading to criminal conviction” or legal penalty, but the award is capped at $10,000. CERCLA similarly contains a provision that is limited to a $10,000 award that may be paid out at the discretion of the President.
Nevertheless, for employees of the wrongdoers, there are numerous environmental statutes providing whistleblower protection against retaliation through OSHA.