RENO, Nev. - A former project manager for a contaminated mine site said Wednesday he was fired for refusing to keep silent about dangers posed by radioactive and other toxic wastes at the site.
In a federal whistleblower complaint seeking more than $1 million in damages, Earle Dixon said he was fired by the Bureau of Land Management in October in retaliation for his aggressive research and public comment on the health and safety risks to workers and residents near the former Anaconda copper mine bordering Yerington, an agricultural town in northern Nevada.
A copy of the administrative complaint obtained by The Associated Press said Dixon refused to go along with repeated attempts by BLM management and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection to downplay the issues.
BLM spokeswoman Jo Simpson said Wednesday the agency was not surprised by the complaint but had no immediate direct response.
"We welcome the investigation and we believe the investigation will bear out that our actions were appropriate," she said.
Division of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Cindy Petterson said the agency has made no attempt to downplay the seriousness of the mine's pollution. She said personnel changes BLM made in the management of the project a month ago have "led to an improvement in the process."
The complaint says cleanup costs at the abandoned mine owned by Atlantic Richfield Co. have risen dramatically — from an estimated $10 million or $20 million to potentially more than $200 million — as a result of research Dixon conducted or directed on dangers from uranium and other toxins.
Tests this summer found unusually high levels of radiation in soil samples at the mine. Earlier groundwater tests showed high concentrations of uranium in wells on site — up to 200 times the U.S. drinking water standard.
"The site is an environmental compliance mess. There is nothing in compliance — not groundwater, not air, not soil," Dixon told the AP. "It needs to be addressed. I was trying to move forward and get it addressed and that's not what the BLM or NDEP wanted."
"Every time I would try to put real technical comments in there and cite things relative to Superfund guidelines, they would take out those parts and water it down," he said in an interview Wednesday.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group, filed the whistleblower complaint with the Labor Department last week on Dixon's behalf.
"You can't be fired for doing your job and Earle Dixon was fired for doing his job," Jeff Ruch, the watchdog group's executive director, said from Washington.
Among other things, Dixon insisted on personally observing sampling, collecting worker safety-related data and developing a formal site health and safety plan "that would draw attention to the problem by forcing workers to wear respirators, a visible red flag to the community," the complaint said.
The complaint said BLM responded by criticizing him for his disclosures, ordering him not to speak to the press, and censoring and editing his technical communications and memos.
The Labor Department will investigate the complaint for 30 days, then recommend whether the case should advance to a hearing before an administrative law judge.
© 2004 AP