Cleveland Waste Worker Rails Against Ban on Talking to Press

CLEVELAND (CN) – A heavy equipment operator claims Cleveland is enforcing a media ban that prevents her and other workers from speaking out about sexually harassing behavior and dangerous conditions at a city plant, including the dumping of toxic waste and a raccoon infestation.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Cleveland federal court, Crystal Jones says she was at first proud when the city’s waste department employed her as the first full-time female heavy-equipment construction operator in its history.

But in the 16 intervening years on the job, her view on her employers at the Ridge Road Transfer Station in the southwestern area of the city has dimmed, according to the complaint drafted by attorney Sandhya Gupta with the Chandra Law Firm in Cleveland.

Jones’ lawsuit describes conditions that sound almost intolerable. Raccoons and other rodents are a common sight in the plant office, Jones claims, and the dumping of toxic waste and animal carcasses is routine on the plant floor.

She alleges the city does not equip workers with adequate protection as they use heavy machinery to move, stack and sort through the waste.

“Early in her employment, Ms. Jones wished to speak to the media about her professional – ‘first’ story [as a heavy-equipment operator]. But over the years, her desire shifted to wanting to speak out about the treatment of women in the male-dominated construction industry, and about the shocking health and safety conditions she has witnessed at the facility,” the 32-page lawsuit states.

Jones says that until now she was forced to keep her mouth shut because Cleveland handed down an edict in 2006 barring the waste division’s 200 workers from talking to the press.

“No waste collection employee is to talk to the media,” the city’s memo stated, according to the complaint.

Jones claims the ban is in place to hide “troubling secrets” at the plant, and is an unconstitutional restraint on her free speech under the First Amendment.

“The press ban is unconstitutional. The secrets it conceals threaten vital public interests. It must be annulled and enjoined,” her lawsuit states.

Dan Williams, spokesman for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, said that he could not comment on pending litigation. Pressed multiple times to confirm or deny the existence of a press ban, he replied: “I haven’t seen the lawsuit, so I don’t know what [Jones] is referring to.”

Calls to the Cleveland Division of Waste went unanswered.

In a phone interview, Jones’ attorney, Gupta, said workers at the Ridge Road plant have inhaled toxins and been sprayed by other airborne contaminants. Some have fallen sick and suffered headaches. She said the city cannot justify creating a policy that prevents the public from hearing about conditions at the plant.

“This is a very broad policy, and it is really silencing employees from bringing up issues of great public importance,” Gupta said.

Jones also claims her co-workers and supervisors have sexually harassed her on the job and that her employer denied her privileges given to less qualified male employees, even though she underwent rigorous training to become a full-time heavy machinery operator.

Jones cites the behavior of her former supervisor, who she claims used racist epithets in the workplace and told Jones, “Women don’t have any business doing this kind of job.”

Even though he was demoted to foreman he kept a supervisory role and was only transferred to another facility, she alleges.

Working 16 hours a day, Jones claims contractors dump toxic and hazardous waste on the plant’s “tipping floor” – an area where trucks unload waste before it is taken to the landfill.

The plant takes in 3,000 tons of waste each day. Workers breathe in kicked up dust containing asbestos, paint and solvents, in addition to liquid waste and potentially infectious animal carcasses, according to the lawsuit.

When the plant floods, the contaminated water is funneled into the city’s drains, sewers and groundwater, Jones claims. Gaping holes in the office ceiling allow raccoons and other rodents into the workspace, she says, and one employee was attacked by feral cats.

The city has failed to provide proper respiratory equipment to the employees working in these conditions, and the commercial waste removal contractors Republic Services and Fabrizi Disposal have poor safety records, the complaint states.

A Republic subsidiary in Nevada was fined $37 million for dumping contaminants into the Colorado River and Lake Mead and polluting drinking water in three states, and federal regulators discovered that a Republic plant in the Lorain County, Ohio, had dumped ammonia into the Black River. Republic plants in several other states have come under scrutiny, according to the complaint.

The contractors are not named as defendants in Jones’ lawsuit and could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Jones wants a judge to declare that the city’s press ban and similar prohibitions on the use of social media violate the First and 14th Amendments, and an injunction barring enforcement of the bans.

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