Criminal Investigation Sought Following Whistleblower Claims of Pollution Violations

July 14, 2004
A former air quality engineer for Southwestern Electric Power Co. plants in Texas has blown the whistle on what he claims are years of violations of the Clean Air Act by parent company American Electric Power.

In addition, Texas environmentalists filed a notice with the EPA of their intent to file suit to enforce the law if the EPA and state of Texas fail to act.

Bill Wilson was fired in May 2004, allegedly for calling attention to the problems, and nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project is calling for a criminal investigation of the company. Testimony and supporting documents outlined by Wilson document what the Environmental Integrity Project is calling "massive violations" of the Clean Air Act at three large AEP power plants in Texas Welsh, Pirkey and Knox-Lee all of which are in east Texas. The charges included allegedly repeatedly and illegally burning chemical waste in utility boilers, violating emission limits for smog forming chemicals, particulate matter and carbon monoxide, and failing to satisfy the New Source Review rules adopted by the Bush Administration.

"I was told that under the recently passed Sarbanes-Oxley law I had to report any evidence of misconduct at the company that could be of material importance to shareholders," said Wilson. "Obviously, the prospect of civil, regulatory or even criminal action arising from Clean Air Act violations fell under that heading."

Wilson said he was just doing his job, and doing it the way he was told to do it, but when he reported his concerns, which were fully documented, to the company's ethics division, he was fired. "I wasn't the party that did something wrong here. AEP was the one I saw breaking the law over and over again," Wilson claimed.

AEP says that a review of claims made by Wilson found that, in many instances, no violations had occurred and, for the remaining claims, the company responded quickly and properly reported the incident.

"Many of these same claims were made internally by Mr. Wilson earlier this year," said Michael G. Morris, AEP chairman, president and chief executive officer. "We take our environmental compliance responsibilities very seriously, so claims like this are also taken seriously. We conducted an internal investigation, reviewed the facts related to issues raised by Mr. Wilson and determined that appropriate corrective action had been taken or that no violations had taken place."

Morris claims that in some cases, Wilson took operating permit language out of context. In other cases, language in the permits and regulations "was imprecise and open to interpretation," said Morris, adding, "We have filed all required reports and have cooperated fully with all the regulatory agencies on these issues. We began the process required to amend the permits with more specific language, as necessary, to provide clarity."

AEP asked for, and received, a meeting in June with representatives from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) after Wilson copied both AEP and TCEQ on a letter sent to a Dallas reporter outlining the allegations. The meeting allowed AEP to address any questions the TCEQ had about the allegations. Discussions between AEP and TCEQ continue.

AEP said Wilson´s employment was terminated for causes "not related" to the environmental claims he had made internally. "We do not retaliate against an employee who files a complaint," Morris said. "We encourage employees to raise issues of concern so we can ensure we are meeting high ethical and legal standards while conducting our business. But filing a complaint does not make an employee immune to disciplinary actions for issues not related to the complaint."

Eric Shaeffer, a former EPA official who is now director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) said his group has interviewed Wilson at length and examined the documents he provided. "There is more than enough evidence to trigger a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice," said Schaeffer. "Mr. Wilson repeatedly brought his concerns to American Electric Power's management, but apparently ran into indifference or denial. America's largest generator of electric power apparently has a 'don't ask, don't tell' philosophy when it comes to complying with our environmental laws."

Violations alleged by Wilson and supported by documents he has made available to EIP include the following:

  • Violations of carbon monoxide and particulate matter emission limits. Data from AEP's Welsh coal-fired plant show that, in Pittsburg, Texas, the facility violated limits on carbon monoxide (CO) by as much as 5,000 percent. Internal emails indicate that AEP managers were aware of violations of both carbon monoxide and particulate matter limits since at least 2001.
  • Violations of heat input limits should have triggered tighter pollution controls. According to Wilson, the Welsh plant exceeded limits on its heat input by as much as 30 percent for many years, increasing air emissions and violating New Source Review rules. If found liable, AEP will have to install state-of-the-art pollution controls. Internal emails indicate that AEP managers or employees were aware of these violations since at least 2001. The Wilson documents suggest that violations continued even after AEP finally reported violating heat input limits in April of this year.
  • Deliberately burning chemical waste as fuel. Documents show that AEP's oil-fired Knox-Lee power plant in Longview, Texas, burned at least 21 truckloads of chemical waste (butyl butrate blowdown) in plant boilers in January of this year, in violation of its permit that limits combustion to fuel oil. By burning chemical waste in Knox-Lee boilers, the plant released unknown quantities of hazardous air pollutants. At least one of the January shipments was apparently falsified to indicate that it contained fuel oil instead of chemical waste, according to Wilson's documents. One employee reported that the chemicals were so hazardous they burned off the gloves of employees handling the shipment. An internal investigation indicated that AEP's fuels department has burned hazardous materials in its Knox-Lee for many years in violation of the law.
  • Exceeding limits on smog-forming chemicals. Annual emission reports show that AEP's lignite-fired H.W. Pirkey plant in Hallsville, Texas, violated annual limits for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) every year between 1990 and 1997, sometimes by as much as 100 percent. VOCs are a key source of the smog that plagues Dallas and other major urban areas in Texas.
  • Misrepresenting data and frustrating regulatory requirements. Following a suggestion from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the Pirkey plant subsequently reported much lower annual VOC emissions in 1998, by relying on a single sample chosen from among five samples taken from a stack test in 1986. But federal law requires that stack test emission results be based on at least three samples, which would have shown much higher smog-causing VOC emission levels, according to Wilson. The whistleblower also says that AEP refused to report emissions from routine maintenance activities at its electrostatic precipitator at the Welsh power plant, despite having been advised to do so by TCEQ staff. He added that AEP also has attempted to shield violations of emission limits by illegally classifying them as part of "startup" operations.

Public Citizen's Texas office has joined with Wilson and EIP in filing a request for a criminal investigation. In addition, the group has filed a notice with EPA of its intent to file suit under the Clean Air Act to enforce the law if the EPA and TCEQ don't act.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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