OSHA Whistleblower Investigation Finds Southwest Oklahoma Development Authority Fired Greens Keeper for Reporting Use of Untreated Wastewater on Public Golf Course

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Following a one-year investigation, OSHA has awarded $99,000 to a whistleblower who was fired for reporting illegal wastewater treatment practices at the Oklahoma golf course where he worked as head greens keeper. The agency found Southwestern Oklahoma Development Authority violated the whistleblower protections in federal anti-pollution laws when it fired Gy Bennar, who reported his employer to the EPA and state environmental officials for using untreated wastewater for irrigation, exposing golfers and the public to dangerous toxins. Bennar is represented by whistleblower attorneys from the Washington, D.C., law firm of Katz, Marshall & Banks, LLP.

Following a one-year investigation, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) concluded that the Southwestern Oklahoma Development Authority ("SWODA") violated the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act when it fired Gy Bennar for reporting illegal wastewater treatment practices at the golf course where he worked to the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") and to Oklahoma environmental officials. In its Findings and Order issued on October 11 in SWODA / Bennar / Case No. 6-3550-10-027, OSHA ordered SWODA to pay Bennar more than $99,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees in a case arising under federal whistleblower protection laws. Bennar is represented by the Washington, D.C., law firm of Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP.

Bennar worked for four years as Head Greens Keeper at a public golf course managed by SWODA. In a whistleblower retaliation complaint filed with OSHA on September 15, 2010, Bennar alleged that as early as 2006 he saw that SWODA was irrigating the golf course with effluent from an adjacent sewage-treatment plant that had not undergone proper chlorination, exposing both golfers and workers to potentially harmful toxins. Bennar further alleged that this practice also endangered members of the public who relied on downstream water sources for drinking water. Bennar alleged, and OSHA expressly found, that Bennar alerted his superiors to the problem but that SWODA ignored his complaints for years.

Bennar further alleged, and OSHA found, that while earning wastewater-treatment license from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) in March 2010, Bennar learned that SWODA's practices were not only potentially harmful but also illegal. After he reported the violations to the Oklahoma DEQ, the EPA and the Governor of Oklahoma in early August 2010, his supervisor berated him for speaking with the agencies and threatened his job. SWODA terminated Bennar's employment without explanation on August 16, 2010, one week after learning of his EPA and Oklahoma DEQ complaints.

In the September 15, 2010, complaint Bennar filed with OSHA, he alleged that SWODA had fired him in violation of the whistleblower protection provisions of the federal Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, both of which prohibit retaliation against employees who report their employers for violating the anti-pollution laws. SWODA denied the allegations and claimed to OSHA after the fact that it had fired Bennar for “insubordinate, irresponsible, disrespectful behavior and attitude and poor work performance.” Noting that SWODA had not identified such alleged misconduct when it fired Bennar, and also noting that Bennar had earned excellent performance ratings, OSHA rejected SWODA’s defense and concluded instead that SWODA fired Bennar for engaging in whistleblowing activity that was protected under the federal anti-pollution laws.

As a remedy for Bennar’s unlawful termination, OSHA ordered SWODA to pay $99,040 in back wages and benefits, out-of-pocket medical expenses incurred from losing health coverage, housing and moving expenses after eviction from employer-provided housing, and attorneys’ fees. OSHA also ordered SWODA to remove negative information from Bennar’s file, to refrain from giving negative references to Bennar’s prospective employers, and to post notices in the workplace informing SWODA employees of their whistleblower rights under federal anti-pollution laws.

“I’m delighted with this ruling and feel vindicated,” Bennar said. “I hope this will help other employees who become aware of violations of federal anti-pollution laws to feel confident about standing up to illegal practices and intimidation on the job.” Whistleblower attorney David J. Marshall, a partner with the law firm of Katz, Marshall & Banks, who represented Bennar in his OSHA complaint, notes that he was confident all along that Bennar would prevail. "Gy Bennar put his job on the line for the public health and safety and got fired for doing it,” Marshall said, “but he fought back and won.” Marshall commended OSHA for doing a thorough investigation, and for “holding an employer accountable for firing a whistleblower who had the courage to oppose harmful pollution that endangered the public.”

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