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What You Need to Know About Whistleblower Complaints Under the Clean Air Act

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

We say it all the time: If you smell something, say something. But what if you smell or see something when you’re on the job, and the foul odor or potential air quality violation is being caused by your employer?

You might be thinking, I know what is occurring is wrong or illegal and could put me, my fellow employees, and the community at risk, but common sense tells me that to keep my job I’ve got to keep my mouth shut.

With all the recent talk about whistleblowers, did you know that the Clean Air Act has a whistleblower protection of its own? Indeed, under the federal Clean Air Act, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who blow the whistle on air emissions violations stemming from area, stationary, and mobile sources that negatively impact the environment and/or public health.

What does this mean, exactly? It means that employees in the private and public sector who report air quality issues to the environmental agencies charged with regulating them should not be retaliated against for speaking out thanks to the provision.

Specifically, the Clean Air Act provides for protections when an employee:

  1. Provides information about a Clean Air Act violation to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or other appropriate federal agencies or department

  2. Testifies or is slated to testify in any proceeding under the Clean Air Act

  3. Refuses to perform duties in good faith based on the reasonable belief that the working conditions are unsafe and unhealthy.

Employees who engage in any of the above activities are protected under the Clean Air Act from being retaliated against. This means that their employers may not:

  1. Fire or furlough the employee

  2. Demote, blacklist, or reduce pay or working hours

  3. Deny a promotion or overtime hours

  4. Discipline

  5. Deny benefits

  6. Intimidate or make threats

  7. Fail to hire or rehire

Please know that if you reported suspected air quality violations of the Clean Air Act and are retaliated against, you may file a whistleblower complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Complaints must be made within 30 days of the retaliatory action and may be accomplished by calling, emailing, or writing the agency.

Following a complaint, OSHA is required by law to review the complaint and determine whether or not to launch a fact-finding investigation into your claim. If evidence to support your claim is present, a voluntary settlement may be reached. If not, OSHA is required to seek relief on behalf of the wronged employee.

Possible outcomes include:

  1. Payment of back wages (including interest)

  2. Compensation for special damages (think attorneys’ fees and other expenses the employee accrued as a result of the retaliatory action)

  3. Reinstatement

Air pollution is a silent killer. As you may have heard, Allegheny County is the only county outside of California—where wildfires have run rampant—to get an F grade when it comes to air quality.

We can all do our part by not only reducing our carbon footprint but by speaking up when we notice air quality violations in our communities AND workplaces.

Editor’s Note: If you have questions about the scope of the protections provided by this statute, be sure to talk to an attorney—you can call the Allegheny County Bar Association for a referral.

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