Ever wonder how tetraethyl lead (TEL) was banned from gasoline? The anti-knock additive was developed by chemist Thomas Midgley and introduced by the Ethyl Corp. in 1923. Although regulators had some proof even then of the lethality of TEL, the additive continued in use until phased out as a result of the Clean Air Act of 1970; it was completely prohibited in 1995. Clair Patterson, a geochemist at the California Institute of Technology, led the efforts to ban TEL. Although he was offered lucrative employment to get him to give up the campaign and ostracized for conducting his research, Patterson established atmospheric data showing the connection between increased lead contamination in the environment and in the human body and TEL. Without his efforts who can say where we would be today?
More often, though, it’s someone from within a company who raises the alarm — and such whistleblowers often face direct retribution. Consider Mark Quint. Within two days of beginning work for Thar Process Inc., Harmarville, Pa., in October 2010, he found deficiencies in the manufacturing of a supercritical pressure vessel destined for a spice maker. One of the deficiencies he noted was that the vessel did not meet ASME Code or NIST standards because the materials of construction documentation was missing. Quint, a mechanical engineer with more than 20 years of experience, was pressured by his superiors, not once but three times, to falsify documentation. He refused and was fired; he then sued Thor for wrongful termination. It is illegal to coerce someone to break the law. Quint won his case in September 2011.
In 1996, Sally Barnes-Soliz, a chemist at Flint Hills Resources’ refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, was told to falsify her benzene-emissions data, refused and was pressured to resign. She filed a report with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding under-reporting of benzene emissions — 0.61 tons reported versus actual emissions of 61 tons. The company was fined $20 million for under-reporting and failure to comply; it was estimated that compliance would have cost the company only $7 million.
In April 1994, David Cahill, the operations manager at the Asarco/Encycle waste treatment plant in Corpus Christi, Texas, resigned and filed a detailed report on mismanagement at Encycle. He had been fired when he refused additional waste for treatment. The plant closed in 2005. EPA and state regulators hope to sell the site over the objections of locals who want testing and remediation.
Many whistleblowers keep their identities secret initially but eventually are exposed when the courts become involved. Some manage to take their secrets to the grave: e.g., Mark Feld, aka “Deep Throat,” in the Watergate scandal. Occasionally, others come forward to back up the whistleblower.
Not all whistleblowing has been to expose environmental problems; sometimes it’s about product safety, or illegal or unethical business practices. Consider the famous revelations about price fixing at ADM: as executive Mark Whitacre told the FBI, there was a saying at ADM: “Our competitors are our friends; our customers are our enemies.” Price-fixing and other collusion among competitors is a carefully held secret. In 2004, the Wall Street Journal reported on price fixing by Bayer, Dow, DuPont, ExxonMobil and Uniroyal (Crompton). The U.S. Justice Dept. and European investigators granted amnesty to witnesses in exchange for testimony.
All of this may sound hypothetical to you now — but that certainly can change, as I found out. Today, many websites, e.g., Whistleblower Support Fund, Elements of an Effective Whistleblower Hotline and http://goo.gl/tQsfKB, can help you decide if whistleblowing is your only course of action and, if so, how you should proceed:
Here’s what I learned from my experience as a whistleblower. First, never challenge an issue — initially. Instead, collect information and secure it. Assemble details available electronically and scan paper copies to convert them into digital files; store this information on a thumb drive. Don’t worry about so-called theft of intellectual property; that’s a small matter. Next, search the websites of regulators like the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the EPA for information on how to bring issues to their attention. Consider contacting a whistleblower blog and find a lawyer. Remember, you will face retaliation. In fact, one common complaint of whistleblowers is that their employers not only went after them initially but also kept going after them, forcing them to respond.
Becoming a whistleblower takes guts; sometimes, though, you have no other way to maintain your personal integrity. Always heed your conscience.
DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. He recently won recognition for his Field Notes column from the ASBPE. Chemical Processing is proud to have him on board. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org