Employees are the eyes and ears of environmental protection. They bury waste, operate incinerators, and witness the discharge of pollutants into the environment. However, employees who "blow the whistle" and report environmental wrongdoing are often subject to harassment, dismissal, and blacklisting.

In 1972 as part of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, Congress recognized the critical role workers play in ensuring the enforcement of environmental laws and enacted the first environmental whistleblower law. Retaliating against environmental whistleblowers was made illegal and the victims of such misconduct finally benefitted from a government remedy at the federal level. By 1980 Congress passed six other environmental whistleblowers laws, protecting employees who blow the whistle on violations of the Toxic Substances, Safe Drinking Water, Solid Waste Disposal, Clean Air, Atomic Energy, and Comprehensive Environmental Response (Superfund) Acts.

Nearly every American worker is protected under these laws. The types of employees who have successfully filed suit include high-level managers who exposed the dumping of raw sewage into rivers, quality-assurance inspectors who reported nuclear safety violations, federal EPA scientists who published papers documenting flaws in risk assessments, and state inspectors who blew the whistle on a school built on a toxic waste dump. In each case the public was able to learn about and prevent significant threats to the environment and public health.

The federal environmental protection laws offer a remedy to the victims of retaliation. The employee initiates the process by filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) within thirty days of learning of the discriminatory action. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigates the complaint, and the whistleblower is entitled to a full evidentiary hearing before the DOL. If the whistleblower wins, that individual is entitled to reinstatement, back pay, attorney fees, damages for loss of reputation, and emotional distress. Under the Toxic Substances and Safe Drinking Water laws, whistleblowers may also be awarded punitive damages.

Although hundreds of employees have obtained relief under these laws (including some multimillion-dollar judgments), whistleblower cases are hard fought, and many environmental whistleblowers with valid cases lose in court. Some cannot afford attorneys experienced in this special area of the law, whereas others miss the thirty-day statute of limitations for filing complaints. Many whistleblowers are overwhelmed by the personal crises they must face after losing their jobs.

Environmental whistleblowers have also received significant support outside the legal system. For example, press coverage of Karen Silkwood's whistleblowing in the early 1970s called attention to the hazards of nuclear power plants. Additionally, public interest groups, such as the National Whistleblowers Center and Public Employees for Professional Responsibility, provide resources and assistance to environmental whistleblowers.



Kohn, Stephen. (2001). "Environmental and Nuclear Whistleblowing." In Concepts and Procedures in Whistleblower Law. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Internet Resources

National Whistleblower Center. "Environmental Issues and Nuclear Safety." Available from www.whistleblowers.org .

U.S. Department of Labor Office of Administrative Law Judges. "Whistleblower." Available from www.oalj.dol.gov .

Stephen M. Kohn

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