Brushed Off

A county wastewater employee says he was canned for speaking out against a private company--on his own time

Brian Blank: "They told me if I wanted to keep working there, I should be careful about what meetings I attend."
Brian Blank thinks his job with the Pima County Wastewater Management Department was flushed down the toilet because, as an environmentalist, he attended some meetings on his own time. He's fighting to get the job back, but his chances appear minuscule.

Hired in January of last year as an "industrial wastewater inspector-trainee," Blank was to have up to 18 months of training to prepare him to meet the minimum qualifications for a permanent, $30,000-a-year position. During this training period, he would be taught how to conduct inspections concerning industrial releases into the sewer system, how to take samples from these firms and how to write reports.

"The goal of the job," the 52-year old Blank explains, "is to inspect private industry wastewater releases to make sure the companies aren't pouring acids and heavy metals down the sewer."

With a university degree in geoscience and extensive experience in related fields, Blank seemed a natural for the position. Once he began working, however, he found his employer to be what he describes as pro-pollution and anti-environment when looking for wastewater system violations by large employers.

As an example of this attitude, Blank recalls that one of his co-workers brought a Sierra Club magazine to work and was told to get rid of it. (When contacted about this incident, the county employee said, "I can't discuss that.")

Even if he had personal disagreements with the approach the agency was taking toward industrial inspections, Blank received satisfactory job ratings on his three- and six-month performance evaluations.

In October, as a private citizen, he attended an open house concerning Brush Ceramic Products' (aka Brush Wellman) air-quality permit application to Pima County.

For many years, Brush's Tucson opponents have charged that its southside plant releases toxic beryllium into the air, thus endangering those living, working and going to schools nearby (See "Something in the Air," February 13, 2003)--allegations that Brush denies. For the last five years, Blank has been a member of the ad hoc Environmental Justice Action Group, which has opposed the company. He even revealed this association on his application for the wastewater inspector job.

After the October open house, in an Arizona Daily Star article about Brush, Blank was quoted and identified simply as a geologist. Within 10 minutes of arriving at work the morning the story appeared, Blank says he was called into his supervisor's office.

"They told me if I wanted to keep working there, I should be careful about what meetings I attend," Blank says. "Plus, I was told, 'Don't talk to the media.'"

Despite that warning, Blank spoke at a public hearing on Brush's application for a county air-quality permit later in October. He was also shown briefly on a KOLD-TV Channel 13 piece about the gathering and labeled as "a concerned citizen."

"They can't tell me not to go to a meeting on my own time," Blank insists.

Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias agrees. Assuming the employee is on his own, time, "a Pima County employee should have the same rights to speak out at a public meeting just like all the citizens of our community," he says.

After his second public appearance concerning Brush, however, the reaction Blank got at work was anything but conciliatory. His required field training stopped almost entirely, and Blank says he mostly sat at his desk reviewing reports and studying manuals for the next few months.

Believing he needed more field inspection experience before taking the final examination for a permanent wastewater position, Blank felt frustrated. That attitude didn't affect his job performance, though, and in late January, his 12-month evaluation again had satisfactory marks.

A few weeks later, as a private citizen, Blank attended a meeting that focused on groundwater pollution south of the University of Arizona, but did not speak. Two days later, Blank was fired.

Dumbfounded, he asked for an explanation, and says he was told there were a lot of reasons for his termination. While his supervisors wouldn't discuss the specifics behind his firing, Blank is convinced it was caused by his appearances at the public meetings.

The written explanation provided him, however, states: "You have failed to satisfactorily complete the requirements for an Industrial Wastewater Control Inspector trainee ..."

Even though Blank had received a satisfactory job performance evaluation just three weeks before his firing, and though he had been in training for only 13 of the 18 months allowed, on Feb. 20, he was unceremoniously out of work.

When asked to explain these apparent discrepancies, officials from the Wastewater Management Department referred all questions to the county's Human Resources Department.

"Human resources wouldn't have information on the reasons for a termination; the (applicable) department would," said Bill Hansel, human resources manager for Pima County. But in general terms, he says that during the training period, any employee can be let go if they're not making it.

"If someone comes in and doesn't complete (during training) what's necessary," Hansel says, "they can be terminated." Plus, he adds, as trainees, they have no right of appeal.

Blank, however, is hoping to get his job back. The local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees labor union has protested the termination, and a hearing is scheduled next week.

In the meantime, Blank shakes his head over his treatment by Pima County and what it means for the community.

"This will have a chilling effect on anyone trying to be a good environmental steward," Blank said. "Even if you're a trainee, you still have rights to what you do on your own time."

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