Koch Refinery, Wichita, Kan., will go to trial this week for allegedly harassing, intimidating, punishing, and ultimately firing a veteran employee whose revelations led regulators to fine the company $15 million for environmental violations.
The civil lawsuit is asking for unspecified compensatory damages for Charlie Chadwell, a licensed waste water treatment operator who worked at Koch's oil refinery at Rosemount, Minn. for 20 years.
"The lawsuit primarily seeks punitive damages to punish Koch and deter it from breaking the law in the future," commented Minnesota attorney Jeffrey Anderson.
In 1996, Chadwell and fellow employee Terry Stormoen brought repeated and serious environmental infractions to the attention of Koch officials.
The violations included discharging millions of gallons of contaminated water; improperly handling hazardous materials; under-reporting spills; using fire systems and pipes to routinely spread contaminated water; and storing waste in cracked or faulty tanks.
Frustrated by the company's continuing violations, the men took their concerns to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), on April 3, 1997.
The suit alleges that for months afterwards, Koch managers harassed, interrogated, and retaliated against both employees. Chadwell was ultimately fired a week before Christmas in 1997.
"What happened to Karen Silkwood and Jeffrey Wigand is happening all over again," said Anderson, referring to two prominent whistleblowers who exposed wrongdoing in the oil and tobacco industries.
Chadwell explained his motives when his suit was filed in February 1998. "I did it for the good of Minnesota and future generations," Chadwell said. "For me, it meant many sleepless nights. But I would do it again if I had to."
At the same time, Stormoen filed a similar lawsuit. It was settled out-of-court for an undisclosed sum in August 1998.
Chadwell charges that Koch violated Minnesota's "whistleblower" statute, which protects employees from retaliation for exposing dangerous and illegal activities to legal or governmental agencies.
The jury trial will begin today in federal court in Minneapolis.
Four months ago, federal regulators forced Koch to pay $8 million, the largest criminal environmental fine in Minnesota history, when it pled guilty to pollution violations. State regulators fined Koch $7 million, the largest civil environmental fine ever in Minnesota.