COLUMBIA, SC A former environmental manager at SCANA says the utility fired her for exposing an array of pollution problems the company needed to address on and around its property, including coal tar that leaked from one site near the Congaree River, according to records released Friday.
Laura Blake-Orr, who had worked at SCANA since 1984, also said the company dismissed her because she was a woman in a corporation dominated by male executives.
Blake-Orr’s allegations are contained in a 2015 federal whistleblower complaint and a discrimination lawsuit filed this week in Lexington County court.
“My client was the type of manager to hold herself and her team to high standards of accountability and environmental compliance,” her lawyer, Shannon Polvi, said Friday in a statement. “It is very disappointing that SCANA, one of the largest companies in our state, is operating with a glass ceiling for highly qualified female employees such as Ms. Blake-Orr, who do the right thing by speaking out against corporate wrongdoings and illegal practices.”
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SCANA spokesman Eric Boomhower offered no comment on the lawsuit, but denied allegations in the federal complaint by Blake-Orr.
“We are familiar with allegations Laura Blake-Orr put forth,” Boomhower said in an email Friday afternoon. “We deny all of those allegations. We are fully committed to demonstrating environmental stewardship and to compliance with all environmental rules and regulations pertaining to our business.”
Blake-Orr’s whistleblower complaint, filed with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration about 13 months ago, contains allegations about what she said are SCANA’s failures to properly respond to environmental concerns she raised while working there. The complaint remains under investigation, Blake-Orr said Friday night.
Blake-Orr, a 55-year-old Chapin resident, lost her job in 2015, records show. She is a former manager in the company’s corporate environmental services department.
She filed the discrimination lawsuit Thursday and Polvi released the federal whistleblower documents Friday after referencing them in a news release about the suit. It’s unusual for a whistleblower complaint to surface against SCANA, which provides power to the Columbia and Charleston areas. The company, through subsidiaries such as SCE&G, operates coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, which generate waste.
Among the whistleblower complaints are allegations about coal tar, a gooey, toxin-tinged substance that was found coating the bottom of the Congaree River about six years ago. The pollution is contained in river sediment near the Gervais Street bridge and is the source of a proposed multi-million dollar cleanup.
In her complaint, Blake-Orr says SCANA dismissed evidence she brought forth about coal tar waste at a former manufactured gas plant site. She says a company cleanup supervisor “ignored my reports of visible surface contamination,’’ even though tar was bubbling up near a substation and a street. Her complaint says the site remained an “undisclosed and unaddressed liability” for five years. Coal tar was later found in river sediment by a swimmer, the complaint said.
State officials have said coal tar apparently came from an old gas plant and might have oozed into the river long ago. The company has accepted responsibility for the tar cleanup.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said he was unaware of the allegations, but called them “concerning.’’
In addition to the coal tar issue, Blake-Orr says in her federal whistleblower case that SCANA:
▪ Illegally disposed of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in a landfill after failing to properly assess whether material from a cleanup project contained potential contaminants. After finding five leaking PCB capacitors near groundwater, a company site manager authorized the “illegal transportation and disposal of thousands of tons of PCB contaminated soils’’ in 2010. PCBs are cancer-causing materials used long ago as fire retardants and insulators. They were banned in the 1970s because of their threat to human health.
▪ Failed to investigate company properties suspected to contain buried PCB capacitors, which might have allowed the company to underestimate its potential financial liability in corporate documents. The company took no action on a list of suspected sites Blake-Orr prepared.
▪ Engaged in “gross mismanagement of hazardous waste’’ in 2009 and 2010. Two employees tried to cover up environmental violations and downplay the seriousness of problems. She was blamed for “nitpicking and trying to get them in trouble.”
▪ Failed to report transformer oil spills of under 25 gallons to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“I believe I am being retaliated against for insisting upon SCANA’s compliance with laws concerning natural resources, cleanup, disposal practices” and other matters, she said in the federal complaint.
In addition to those allegations, Blake-Orr said SCANA subsidiary SCE&G “was not pleased” with a federal push to better protect eagles and other birds of prey from injury or death on power lines. SCE&G had to develop a plan to retrofit power lines in 2012 to minimize risks to birds.
Blake-Orr’s lawsuit focuses on what she says was poor treatment at SCANA because she was a woman. The suit alleges she was subjected to years of management pushback and she lost chances for promotions.
She reported unfair treatment to SCANA, making her the target of retaliation and “hyper scrutiny’’ by her bosses. The company eventually offered her other, lesser jobs that would have resulted in a reduction in her pension, the suit said. But Blake-Orr said she could not afford that because she had dependent children and was her family’s primary source of income, the suit said. SCANA fired her March 12, 2015, according to the lawsuit.