SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Two former employees of the agency responsible for protecting the Bay Area from air pollution say they were improperly fired for trying to prevent the illegal destruction of important records.
Michael Bachmann was an IT manager in the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s Information System Services Division and Sarah Steele was an analyst in his office when they say they brought the illegal document destruction to the attention of their superiors.
The pair spoke out Wednesday during a news conference at their lawyers’ Oakland office, saying that instead of working with them to protect the documents, air district executives thwarted their efforts and ultimately drummed them out of the agency under false pretenses.
“It’s really hard to think that this type of stuff is happening,” a visibly upset Bachmann said Wednesday. “I felt I was retaliated against for doing my job.”
In a whistleblower claim filed yesterday with the state and the air district—the first step to filing a lawsuit—Bachmann and Steele allege that the district’s head lawyer Brian Bunger, lawyer Bill Guy and Director of Enforcement Wayne Kino worked to prevent the documents from being preserved.
In one instance in January 2016, Bunger, Guy and Kino told Steele to take boxes of microfilm containing notices of violations, settlements with polluters, asbestos records and thousands of pollution complaints from citizen about different companies and place them in an unsecured storage room, according to the claim.
After inventorying as many as the records as possible, Steele discovered a few days later that the boxes were gone.
“My assumption is that they have disappeared,” Steele said Wednesday.
That same month, Steele said she discovered that flare reports for Chevron, Tesoro, Shell and other East Bay refineries were being tossed into a dumpster.
She informed air district staff that she intended to inventory those documents but was told by Kino that she was not to collect or inventory any documents from the Enforcement Division.
At the time, Steele and Bachmann were tasked with collecting, inventorying and digitizing 60 years of physical documents in preparation of the air district moving its headquarters from one San Francisco building to another.
The district is required by law and its own guidelines to preserve the documents, in part, to create the historic context of what has happened at a particular refinery or at other companies that are monitored by the air district, according to Steele and Bachmann’s lawyers.
The district is also required to keep records of what documents it does destroy, according to the claim.
Bachmann was eventually fired in August 2016 for alleged violations of the district’s vehicle use policy, insubordination, assigning overtime to Steele and dishonesty on his employment application, which he filled out in 16 years ago when he was hired by the district, according to the claim.
Steele, who the air district calls a temporary employee, was let go after being told her project was complete.
Both dispute the district’s characterization of their terminations, saying they were simply punished for trying to stop the destruction of the district’s documents.
“It’s about our health. It’s about our kids. It’s about our air,” Steele said.
The air district said in a statement that the pair’s allegations “were thoroughly investigated by an outside law firm” and found “to be false and without merit.”
“The data that former employees of the Air District have accused the agency of destroying are in fact, all available in electronic format and available for public review,” according to the district statement. “For nearly 30 years, the air district has retained information in an electronic database for all notices of violation, facility complaints, investigation documents and correspondence.”