Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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Puyallup River pollution whistleblower sues dam operator

Employee alleges Electron Hydro didn’t fully pay workers or provide breaks

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Already fighting lawsuits for killing endangered salmon and pollution for putting artificial turf in the Puyallup River without a permit, Electron Hydro now also has been sued by the employee who blew the whistle on the turf, as he alleges the company violated state wage and hour laws.

Derek Van Giesen filed the class-action lawsuit in Superior Court for Pierce County on July 12.

The dam, more than 100 years old, burst into the news in August when the owner, Electron Hydro LLC, put artificial turf in the river during a construction project, intending to use it as a liner. The river tore up the turf, sending hunks of plastic, artificial grass and cubic yards of crumb rubber miles downriver.

In his suit, Van Giesen alleged the company didn’t pay workers for time spent on the clock getting to the company’s remote work site on the Puyallup, or pay workers or provide breaks for meals as required by state law.

“They were really hard on the workers,” Van Giesen said in a phone interview. He said the company did not have a time clock and instead required workers to write down their time in a system that was so confusing he never figured it out.

Electron Hydro relayed a brief statement about the suit via its attorney.

“Electron Hydro understands that a former employee who worked for two weeks recently filed a lawsuit in Pierce County, and we will respond appropriately in that forum including denying the individual’s allegations in their entirety. We will not comment further on this pending legal matter.”

Van Giesen said he was fired after 17 days on the job after he made a cellphone video of the company placing the artificial turf in the river and posted it on social media.

“I risked my butt filming it; I did the best I could as a meager employee,” Van Giesen said. “I am still trying to do the best I can for everyone else. I am trying to help the employees.

“They were all afraid to even speak about that rubber in the river, they were totally ruled by fear.”

He said he was fired for insubordination and fighting. “There was no insubordination, and never a fight. They just wrote something down to make it look like that.”

Van Giesen said he felt he had no choice but to speak out, for the employees, and for the Puyallup. “I was forced to do this; I hate that it happened to the river.”

His attorney, James Pizl, of Entente Law in Puyallup, who specializes in class action suits on behalf of employees on wages and hours, said the suit seeks back pay, damages, and court and attorney’s fees.

The suit is in its initial stages; Pizl said he has yet to do discovery to establish a total amount of damages. The case has yet to be certified by the court as a class action.

Meanwhile, Electron Hydro lost a preliminary injunction in court brought by American Whitewater and other plaintiffs including the Puyallup Tribe, and as a result cannot operate its hydroelectric dam unless it receives the necessary permits under the Endangered Species Act.

U.S. District Court Judge John C. Goughenour ruled in June that it was likely the dam would kill Chinook, bull trout and steelhead, all protected under the act, if operated, and denied operations until the facility is brought into environmental compliance.

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