Paula Oransky never dreamed she could be fired for protesting against oil and gas wells near her home

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Paula Oransky
Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

It was without question the best job Paula Oransky had ever had. The Colorado School of Mines graduate was making six figures, had a great benefits package and as far as she knew, was the only woman in her multi-billion dollar corporation, Martin Marietta Materials, who held the title of district sales manager. The job allowed Oransky and her family — a husband and two small children — to purchase a nice home in Boulder County, Colorado. Erie, to be exact. It was just the kind of small town community in which the couple, who met at age 16 and have been married for 15 years, always dreamed of living.

“We chose this place because we love the community,” she says. “We can walk our kids to the elementary school. We can ride our bikes to the rec center for T-ball games or downtown to get ice cream. We love living in a small town.”

But the Oransky family’s American dream was about to get turned upside down. On October 17, 2017, Paula Oransky was fired.

She says it all happened really fast. “They said, ‘We need your computer, we need your phone and you need to get out of here.’ They gave me the option of gathering up my personal things right then or coming back to get them. I was emotional. Tearing up, I just went home.”

So what was Oransky’s crime? What terrible thing had she done to deserve such an unceremonious dismissal? Was she bad at her job? No, it wasn’t that. In her three years with the company she had received nothing but good performance reviews and she had even recently received a substantial bonus. It turns out Oransky was fired for just one reason: She had participated in a lawful, nonviolent, public protest against the proposed drilling of new oil and gas wells near her home. And her employer believed that her protesting created a conflict of interest with her job.

You read that right. The mother of two was fired because she participated in a protest on September 27, 2017 in her own community on her own time at a public forum held by Anadarko Petroleum at the Erie Community Center to discuss its future drilling plans in the area, including 36 new wells within two miles of the Oransky home and her children’s elementary school. Anadarko’s meeting notice invited members of the community to attend. At no time during the protest did Oransky ever identify herself as an employee of Martin Marietta, either by her words or what she was wearing.

“It never crossed my mind that I could be fired for something I was doing on my own time,” she says. “I had no idea what the laws were. I just made sure that I wasn’t saying or wearing anything that would connect me to my employer because I thought that was the right thing to do. I was there as a citizen of the community.”

The protest was organized by a group known as “Erie Protectors,” a collection of mostly local residents concerned about the impacts of the massive oil and gas extraction operations that have and continue to inundate their community. It was the first oil and gas protest Oransky had ever participated in.

Gravel before family

During the Anadarko public forum where the protest occurred, Oransky says she recognized one of the representatives from the oil company. Martin Marietta sells certain materials and aggregates (think gravel) to Anadarko and other oil and gas companies for use in their construction of drilling pads and roads. As district sales manager at her company, Oransky says she doesn’t conduct direct sales to clients like Anadarko, rather she supervises the members of the sales force who do. Besides recognizing the Anadarko employee, Oransky was also aware that a video of the protest was being made for YouTube by Erie Protectors. For these reasons she felt it was quite likely that her employer would at some point be made aware that she had participated in the protest. So the next day, she voluntarily informed the top manager at the facility where she worked.

“When I initially came in and talked to Pat Walker about the protest, he asked me what I was protesting about and I explained about all the wells they were going to be drilling right around my house and how that brings up a lot of issues for me, health and safety, property values and things like that. He said something like, ‘Well, you know you certainly have a right to care about those things.’ I don’t remember his exact words but I remember leaving there feeling like it was no big deal. It never dawned on me that I’d be fired.”

Later that day Oransky also gave a heads up to HR about her participation in the protest. Again, she says, it seemed no big deal.

Oransky says there were a number of things that occurred which finally motivated her to protest the newly proposed wells that would be joining the hundreds of wells already in Erie.

Joel Dyer
For Erie residents, scenes such as this are becoming an everyday occurrence.

She recalls her fear when she heard about the home explosion in Firestone, just eight miles from her home, that killed two men and badly injured a woman. An Anadarko well 178 feet from the exploded Firestone home had been leaking odorless gas from one of its old flowlines. The home’s basement eventually filled with the gas and exploded, literally leveling the home. Gov. Hickenlooper ordered all such wells shut down and flowlines inspected. The most important information to come out of the Firestone tragedy was that there are thousands of miles of such flowlines, many underlying neighborhoods, and it isn’t possible for homeowners to know where they are or if they are in danger.

Oransky says there is an old abandoned well in her neighbor’s backyard, just two doors down. The state has documented leakage in such wells, and in more than one instance gas leaking from abandoned wells entered nearby homes and in some instances even caused explosions.

As if all this wasn’t frightening enough to the mother of two small children, in May of 2017, a battery of oil tanks similar to the ones sitting 500 feet from the Oransky home exploded just 10 miles away, killing an oil worker and injuring three others.

And finally, Oransky says she was outraged when she learned in June 2017 that the Anadarko-owned well and production platform a quarter mile from her home and right next to the Erie Recreation Center ball fields, where her children play T-ball and her husband softball, had leaked more than 5,000 gallons of toxic oil waste only a few feet away from the fields.

Joel Dyer
This is the well next to the Erie Rec Center ball fields that Oransky says spilled thousands of gallons of oil in 2017.

At that point she started doing her own research on the health and safety issues associated with oil and gas operations near homes.

She became extremely worried about the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) the wells emit, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. She was particularly concerned with how such poisons might harm her 4-year-old daughter, who was born two months premature, suffers from a congenital respiratory disorder and sometimes needs an inhaler to help her breath.

Her fears are well founded.

A 2013 joint study of Erie’s air quality conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that more than half of the VOCs linked to dangerous ground-level ozone in her community are tied directly to oil and gas activity. Ground-level ozone is especially dangerous to persons with respiratory conditions, particular the elderly and the young, like her daughter.

And then Anadarko announced it would be drilling many more wells in Erie. It was the final straw for a mom who loves her family and her community.

Joel Dyer
Paula Oransky and her two children walking near the wells and production platform located approximately 500 feet from their home.

“I don’t consider myself an activist,” Oransky says. “I just think I’m a concerned and well-educated citizen. I really believe in the value of community. I know all my neighbors. Thats how I want to live.”

Oransky may have been emotional and tearing up when she got fired, but by the time she got home a different emotion had taken hold.

“It made me angry,” she says. “I felt like I was living in communist Russia. I wouldn’t change my actions. My family, their health, protecting them is more important than anything. They’re more important than anything else. I came home [from getting fired] and I thought this is bullshit. It made me more angry that somebody had told me, ‘No, you can’t protect your family,’ and ‘No, your job is more important than your family.’ I asked them, ‘What did I do wrong and can’t we talk about this?’ They never asked me why I was protesting, for them it was just about business. They never asked me if there were health issues or if I was an environmentalist or anything like that.”

The lawsuit

Oransky has hired the Denver firm of Springer and Steinberg to represent her in a lawsuit against Martin Marietta. Her suit claims that she was terminated “without due process and in retaliation for her lawful off-work exercise of her state and federal constitutional rights of free speech, assembly, and petition and in violation of state law on employee off-job activities.” She isn’t trying to get her job back.

“I wouldn’t want to work at a place that doesn’t value their employees’ right to be active in their own community,” she says.

Oransky’s lawsuit is asking for a jury to decide on how she should be compensated for what the suit calls the “extreme and outrageous behavior” of Martin Marietta Materials. At least some of the potential injuries to the Oransky family seem pretty self-evident.

She explains, “I was the primary breadwinner. The majority of the income we bring in as a family was from me. And I carried all the benefits. We have Medicaid, we qualify for that now. We’re running through our savings and my husband took a second job. They’re both part-time in the healthcare industry and one is in Winter Park. So no benefits, and he has to travel. It’s hard but we try to be positive about it.”

As for her future in the only industry she’s ever worked?

“This is an industry where everyone knows everyone and everyone talks to everyone and this is the kind of thing that will make it difficult for me in the future,” she says. “So yes, this will definitely effect my future earning power.”

For most of us, we like to think that what we do on our own time is of no concern to our employer, and for the most part that’s true. But Colorado employment law has what is called the “exception to the exception” and that, according to documents filed in the case, is what Martin Marietta is banking on in defense of its firing of Oransky.

The corporation does not dispute the fact that it fired Oransky because of her actions at the oil and gas protest on her own time in her own community. Rather, it claims that her protesting Anadarko was a conflict of interest to her job because the oil giant and other industry peers sometimes purchase construction materials from Martin and therefore the company had the legal right to fire her under state law.

So here’s an abbreviated version of Colorado’s state labor law in layman’s terms.

Colorado is an at-will employment state. That means an employer can fire an employee at any time for any reason at all, or even for no reason at all, so long as it is not for an illegal reason.

So there you have it. Any company can fire anyone for any reason except an illegal reason, such as firing a person for doing perfectly legal things on their own time off work premises.

State statute C.R.S. 24-34-402.5 titled “Unlawful prohibition of legal activities as a condition of employment” states:

“It shall be a discriminatory or unfair employment practice for an employer to terminate the employment of any employee due to that employee’s engaging in any lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours.”

That is the “exception,” the illegal reason for a person being fired in Colorado. But here is the “exception to the exception.” It’s illegal to fire an employee for doing legal things on their own time off of the work site except when it is deemed necessary “to avoid a conflict of interest with any responsibilities to the employer or the appearance of such a conflict of interest.”

Martin Marietta Materials fired Oransky because it claims her participation in the protest that disrupted its sometimes-customer Anadarko Petroleum’s forum was a conflict of interest with her job.

In a document titled “Defendant Martin Marietta Materials, Inc.’s Original Answer,” which has been filed in the lawsuit, it states that “Plaintiff’s [Oransky’s] conduct at the public meeting clearly conflicted with her obligations as Defendant’s [Martin Marietta’s] sales employee. Plantiff’s conduct at the public forum certainly reflects on Plaintiff’s job performance.”

Oransky’s case is before the United States District Court for the District of Colorado.

Could you be next

Even while she is fighting in court, Oransky continues the fight for her family and her community, though she admits she’s contemplated moving on.

“We’ve thought about moving because of the drilling. I think that’s fair to say for everyone in town who has hundreds of wells near them. It makes me angry to think about it. Both me and my husband come from working class families. We’ve worked hard to get what we have. I’m the daughter of an immigrant. We worked our way through college,” she says.

“I’m pretty conservative in some areas, but not when it comes to corporations having the power over a community, not when there are health impacts. A corporation shouldn’t be able to negatively impact a community that may or may not even have a voice. When corporations have power over people and it’s affecting their health, that’s not an inconvenience, it’s a health issue. There has to be a better way.”

Joel Dyer
Erie’s neighborhoods have been inundated by wells which researchers claim have harmed the community’s air quality and caused an increase in dangerous ground level ozone.

What happens in this case could set an important precedent for everyone on the Front Range and around the state. Simply put, if Oransky can be fired for simply protesting against the oil and gas industry in her own neighborhood on her own time, so can you. Martin Marietta’s claims imply that if your employer makes money in any direct or even indirect way from the oil and gas industry, then your employer, for all intents and purposes, owns you 24 hours a day, seven day a week, every day of the year when it comes to your rights of free speech, protest and assembly regarding the oil and gas industry. Think about the implications. Thousands of businesses could fall into that category.

If this newspaper were to sign an advertising contract with an oil and gas company, could I be legally fired for protesting in my own neighborhood on my own time if that company proposed drilling a well across the street from my home and our owner decided my actions could cause the paper to lose business?

A few years back, I interviewed a woman who lived in a low-income housing complex in Greeley who was protesting a massive drilling project going in just a few feet from where her children lived and played. She cleaned hotel rooms for a living, and nearly every hotel room in town was occupied by oil and gas roughnecks up from Oklahoma and Texas to work the rigs. Could she have been fired by her employer for protesting?

How about the waitress at a restaurant whose business has increased due to the rig workers coming in for lunch or dinner? Has she now lost her constitutional rights to free speech and protest because her boss is afraid she’ll be recognized and the workers will go elsewhere for their meals?

There are literally thousands of companies that do business with the oil and gas industry in one way or another and those businesses have tens if not hundreds of thousands of employees. Where does it stop?

If the person who supervises someone else who actually sells gravel to Anadarko Petroleum can be fired for protesting wells that could harm her family on her own time in her own community, can the person who sells the shovel or rents the machine to move the gravel be fired for the same infraction, speaking their mind?

This case is far bigger than just Paula Oransky, and she understands that. “My situation certainly sent a message. I’m sure it’s had a chilling effect on anyone who may have concerns about oil and gas and its impacts,” she says.

“Regardless of who you work for, you should be able to have an opinion, and if that opinion is different than the corporation’s public opinion or your boss’s opinion or the CEO’s opinion, that should be OK. The corporation doesn’t own you 24/7, the company doesn’t own you 24/7.”