The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) said today that as investigations of the ongoing Flint water crisis continue, public workers have a right to know that they are protected by state and federal whistleblower statutes, as well as civil service rules.
“We need to get to the bottom of what happened in Flint and find out why tens of thousands of people, including workers, have been exposed to contaminated water,” said Jessica Martinez, acting executive director of National COSH. “Public employees should know they can step forward and report any information they have about this public health crisis. Whistleblower laws protect them from any retaliation whatsoever if they share information about potential wrongdoing.”
Both Michigan and federal statutes, Martinez said, make it illegal to fire, demote, or otherwise harass employees who report possible violations of state and federal law.
“With multiple investigations underway,” said Martinez, “now is the time for U.S., Michigan and local officials to remind workers of their whistleblower rights and to make sure that relevant laws and regulations are rigorously enforced.”
U.S. statutes specifically protect workers who report violations of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. State of Michigan law protects employees of all political subdivisions of the state, including city, county and township workers. State workers are also protected, including protections for classified state employees under rules of the Michigan Civil Service Commission, which have the force of law. Federal whistleblower law can add additional protections over and beyond those available under state of Michigan statutes.
Recent action to suspend two employees of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said Martinez, does not change the ultimate accountability for the crisis in Flint.
“Flint is a man-made disaster,” said Martinez, “and the man who made it is Governor Rick Snyder.” Emails and other documents show that key decisions leading to the contamination of drinking water in Flint were made by Snyder appointees, including former state Treasurer Andrew Dillon and former Flint Emergency Managers Ed Kurtz and Darnell Earley.
When Miguel del Toral, a regulations manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wrote a memo in July of 2015 raising concerns about high levels of lead in the Flint water supply, state of Michigan officials dismissed him as a “rogue employee.”
“Front-line workers often have crucial information about sources of environmental contamination that threaten workers and communities,” said Peter Dooley, a safety project coordinator at National COSH. “It’s important for workers to know they have a legal right to come forward – and anybody who tries to intimidate or silence them is breaking the law.”
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan and the Michigan Attorney General are investigating the Flint water crisis to determine any possible violations of state or federal law.
Michigan’s whistleblower statute can be found here.
Rules of the Michigan Civil Service Commission are here. See Section 2-10, p. 34, “Whistleblower Protection.”
Information on federal whistleblower protection programs can be found here.