Lawsuits filed by two former Chemours Company employees alleging that the company fired them for reporting pollution and work safety violations to the company have landed in federal court.
Donnie Ennis, of Putnam County, and Paul Griffith, of Boone County, contend they were fired in September 2019 in retaliation for previously reporting environmental safety and workplace violations, including the illegal discharge of pollutants into the Kanawha River and unmaintained fire and gas detection systems.
Ennis and Griffith allege Chemours committed federal and state water pollution violations resulting from a pipe discharging water ending in an unpermitted outfall into the Kanawha River.
They say they first became aware of water seeping out of the ground next to an acid tank, about 100 yards from the Kanawha River, in 2017 and left it alone until June 2019, when they further excavated it and realized the pipe ended in the unpermitted outfall.
Ennis and Griffith allege a plant manager instructed employees to stop excavating instead of rectifying the situation, and that a unit manager told them the problem was resolved even when a hole in the pipe was still visible.
West Virginia American Water’s Kanawha Valley intake is located on the Elk River, not the Kanawha River, thus protecting it from the alleged discharges at the Chemours Belle site, said West Virginia American Water spokeswoman Megan Hannah.
The plaintiffs say Chemours failed to repair a load shack in violation of federal hazardous material regulations despite their regularly reporting the violations to the company from 2016 to 2019. The load shack provided no line of sight for the loading and unloading of hazardous materials into cargo tanks, and was dilapidated with rusted walls and no video monitoring system or windows, according to Griffith and Ennis.
Ennis and Griffith say Chemours also failed to maintain a video monitoring system, even after they reported the system wasn’t working to at least three company personnel members.
The company also failed to maintain a fire and gas detection system which had been sounding an alarm when there was no fire or gas leak for about six months, Ennis and Griffith allege.
“In a sense, Plaintiffs acted as the canary in the coal mine at the Chemours plant,” attorney Laura Davidson said on behalf of Mountain State Justice, the Morgantown-based nonprofit law firm representing Ennis and Griffith, in an emailed statement.
“The facts of the matter, when presented in court, will provide a clear view of the circumstances surrounding the employee separations,” Chemours spokeswoman Robin Ollis Stemple said in an emailed statement, citing a policy of not commenting on personnel-related lawsuits to decline further comment.
Ennis and Griffith say the company purportedly fired them for not pulling a fire alarm after testing determined that dimethyl sulfate, a highly toxic and carcinogenic chemical commonly used in manufacturing dyes and perfumes and separating mineral oils, had leaked into a dike.
The plaintiffs contend they assumed the liquid in the dike was rainwater, but had reported to the company that what they thought was rainwater might have mixed with a tub of caustic chemicals that the dike contained. They say they also told workers on the next shift to see what needed to happen to get the dike pumped out because the pump was broken.
Another employee was not fired even after leaving a valve open that caused 45,000 pounds of the toxic, flammable chemical dimethylacetamide to be pumped into the ground, according to the lawsuits.
“We were fired for a leak that we had nothing at all to do with,” Griffith said in an emailed statement provided by Davidson, adding that Ennis noticed the leak and that it was completely contained. “There were other leaks there where thousands of pounds of chemicals were dumped straight to the ground but those employees are still working there.”
Ennis and Griffith allege no other employees were terminated or reprimanded as a result of a Chemours investigation to determine who was at fault for the dimethyl sulfate leak.
Ennis, 46, had worked at the Belle site for 26 years and was never written up, while Griffith, 47, began working at the site in 2012, according to the lawsuits, which note they began working as a two-person team in 2016.
Chemours, which is based in Wilmington, Delaware, was founded as a spinoff in 2015 from DuPont, the former longtime site owner. Ownership of the Belle plant site was transferred to Chemours that year.
The lawsuits were originally filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court in April, but filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia on June 25. Ennis and Griffith are seeking injunctive relief to stop what they say are unlawful employment practices, as well as compensatory and punitive damages and attorney fees.
“We filed this suit to remedy those damages and in an effort to force Chemours to stop its illegal practices that places its workers and the community at large in danger,” Davidson said.