Lewiston mill gets whistle-blower suit

LEWISTON TRIBUNEDecember 3, 2013 

The U.S. Department of Labor alleges Clearwater Paper retaliated against an employee who raised workplace safety and health concerns.

Clearwater Paper will challenge the complaint, company spokesman Matt Van Vleet says.

“We will vigorously fight it in federal district court,” Van Vleet says. “We really do encourage our employees to speak up and speak out about health and safety concerns.”

The lawsuit seeks reinstatement of Anthony Tenny, a former sawmill employee, along with back pay and compensatory, emotional-distress and punitive damages.

Clearwater Paper sold the sawmill to Idaho Forest Group in October 2011. Idaho Forest Group is not named in the complaint. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the Labor Department, didn’t explain how Tenny could get his job back, given that the plant where he worked is no longer part of Clearwater Paper.

Tenny began working at the sawmill in February 2004, was promoted several times and “given generally high performance ratings,” according to the lawsuit.

He repeatedly expressed concerns to Clearwater Paper that employees were being exposed to “excessive levels of red cedar dust,” according to the lawsuit, including in April and May 2010, when he spoke with his immediate supervisor before contacting OSHA.

After Tenny contacted OSHA, the agency inspected the plant but issued no citations, says David Mahlum, acting regional administrator for OSHA in Seattle.

“Even if they were wrong, it doesn’t mean their belief wasn’t reasonable. I’m not saying this guy was wrong,” Mahlum says. “Just based on the evidence, we didn’t issue a citation.”

Clearwater Paper suspended Tenny without pay on June 21, 2010, and required him to take a drug test, according to the complaint.

Tenny was fired June 25, 2010. Four days later, he filed a whistle-blower complaint with OSHA, according to the lawsuit.

At the time of Tenny’s termination for “work performance reasons,” Clearwater Paper had no idea he had any connection to a single, anonymous complaint that led to the OSHA inspection cited in the litigation, Van Vleet says.

The complaint against Clearwater Paper is the only one in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Alaska that has been filed in U.S. District Court by the federal OSHA office so far this year, Mahlum says.

ewilliams@lmtribune.com, (208) 848-2261

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