The first thing former Weekly Editor Pamela White mentions when asked about her November 2003 exposé on the Cemex plant near Lyons is the Thermos.
A Cemex employee-turned-whistleblower had installed a video camera in the bottom of a Thermos to surreptitiously record what he claimed was evidence of health and safety violations.
The videos, which the whistleblower provided to BW, show high piles of dust blocking walkways, oil filters floating in oily water, rags tied around dripping oil leaks. The three most striking images were of a waist-high pile of cement dust entirely blocking a door; the dashboard of a dump truck, the gauges entirely missing; and a nearby water-filled ditch where cattails grew in a green oily slime surrounded by discarded oil filters and oil buckets.
Of course, when White set up an interview and tour at the facility, none of those apparent violations were visible. Apparently, when visitors came, things got cleaned up. The plant manager acknowledged what the whistleblower had reported: When state inspectors were on the grounds, the code phrase “There are donuts in the front office” was announced on loudspeakers, alerting the employees to be on their best behavior.
“It’s been my policy since I came on the job here that if we have an inspector on the site, I want every employee to know that so people aren’t doing something stupid,” the plant manager told BW. “It’s like an, ‘All hands on deck. You guys pay attention to what you’re doing.’”
According to reports from neighbors, cement kiln dust (CKD) was regularly being blown off-site, an air-quality control violation.
“It’s a violation of state air pollution law if they let it migrate off-site,” White says.
The particulate matter had been shown to cause wheezing and exacerbate asthma (and other lung problems), and had even been linked with premature aging of the lungs and death. Cement dust, in particular, because it has a high pH, can cause chemical burns.
As White explains, “it is dangerous stuff. It can take the paint off your car.”
She put together a comprehensive account of the plant’s past violations record at county and state levels, and described contemporary investigations, including one that was prompted by BW’s newsgathering on the subject.
White also went to extremes, like driving onto the plant property without permission in an effort to take photos of employees who were reportedly dumping solvents into a nearby pond. While she didn’t get those shots, she took the whistleblower’s videos to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which performed an unannounced inspection and discovered several violations.
At around the same time, and independent of the Weekly’s investigation, the state health inspector was conducting a similar inquiry into the plant’s operations.That inquiry resulted in what White says was the biggest fine that had ever been assessed by the health inspector up to that point in time.