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Jack Tursman is known at Southern Illinois University as the man who blew the whistle on Chemical Waste Management Inc. -and was awarded $587,900.
A graduate student in environmental engineering at the Carbondale university, Tursman brings a different perspective to class than most students, stemming from the retaliatory-discharge suit he won in August.
A circuit court judge on Nov. 22 will hear arguments on whether to uphold the verdict, overturn it, reduce the award or call for a new trial.
Tursman, now 38, worked as a shift supervisor at a toxic-waste incinerator on Chicago's Far Southeast Side for 28 months until he was fired Dec. 1, 1987.
Tursman charged that he was fired after meeting repeatedly in a Tinley Park restaurant with a company consultant and complaining of serious environmental violations at the toxic-waste burner, which shut down after a 1991 explosion.
"They fired me for telling them what they didn't want to hear," says Tursman with a trace of bitterness.
After he was fired, Tursman went directly to Chemical Waste Management officials in Oak Brook early in 1988 and repeated his complaints. The company sent a letter in March 1988 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describing Tursman's complaints, setting into motion state and federal investigations that led to fines totaling $4.1 million against the incinerator.
Tursman says he witnessed-and took part in-falsification of records, shutting off safety devices and overloading the incinerator, causing it to belch toxic smoke. Tursman said he thought the consultant with whom he met prior to his firing would use his influence to investigate and stop the violations.
Chemical Waste Management, on the other hand, describes Tursman as the architect of his own downfall and said it fired him because he failed to report a toxic-waste spill on Thanksgiving Day 1987 and managed it poorly.
Chemical Waste Management is the hazardous-waste disposal subsidiary of WMX Technologies Inc. of Oak Brook.
The incinerator has a history of problems. In a decade of ownership, Chemical Waste has been fined $10.1 million for state and federal environmental infractions, including the $4.1 million related to Tursman's charges.
After a 6 1/2-day trial, a circuit court jury believed Tursman, whose testimony painted an alarming picture of what went on while the incinerator at 11700 Stony Island Ave. was operating in the meadows of the Lake Calumet industrial region.
Tursman and other witnesses said there were daily violations of the 2,910-pounds-an-hour government limit for burning wastes containing toxic PCB and that a carbon monoxide monitor that would shut down the incinerator automatically if air-pollution limits were exceeded had been disconnected.
According to Tursman and other former Chemical Waste employees, the plant operations manager, who is no longer in this country, ordered shift supervisors to "burn as much as possible."
Tursman said he knew it was wrong, but "it was either that or find another job."
As a result of the overloading, he said, the incinerator sometimes puffed black smoke, which might contain unburned toxics.
"All the employees carried portable radios," he explained, "and we would warn each other of puffing. We'd get on the radio and go: 'Cough-cough-cough-cough.' That was a warning to get out of the way."
In another key incident, Tursman testified, he reported a toxic-waste spill in May 1987 at 200 to 300 gallons. But he was called to the plant operations manager's home in Lansing, Ill., and told to change the amount to 10 gallons, he said.
This is where the case takes an odd turn.
Tursman said he wrote a letter to a fellow member of a Palos Heights church, asking to see him. The man, David Blomberg, had been a business and marketing executive with Waste Management Inc. of Oak Brook since 1971, rising to become assistant to Dean Buntrock, chairman and chief executive of Waste Management, which is now WMX Technologies.
WMX said Blomberg retired in 1985 as Buntrock's assistant but continued to serve as a consultant to the company on charitable programs until 1991.
Tursman and Blomberg met for the first time in a Tinley Park restaurant on June 5, 1987. Believing Blomberg had Buntrock's ear, Tursman revealed his concerns about environmental violations at the incinerator.
Saying the two men met at least 10 times, Tursman testified that Blomberg called the incinerator a "rogue operation" and promised an investigation. Instead, Tursman said, the plant operations manager later reprimanded him for "talking too much." Then he was fired.
On the witness stand, Blomberg said he only met with Tursman two or three times in the belief that incinerator duties prevented the worker from attending church, and Blomberg wanted him to attend church.
As for the environmental irregularities, Blomberg testified: "I didn't know really quite what to think about it when he told me those things." But Blomberg denied mentioning it to anyone, saying he didn't know if the allegations were true.
Blomberg said he also doubted that Tursman was fired for talking to him "because I hadn't told anybody that I was meeting with him."
After the case went to the jury, Tursman, expecting the jury to deliberate for days, went to visit his mother in Calumet City. But the jury found in his favor after deliberating just 4 1/2 hours.
Tursman's lawyer telephoned and said: "Jack, sit down." Then she slowly enunciated the amount of the award.
"I was happy," Tursman said. "It could have been better . . . but I shouldn't complain."
Meanwhile, the 27-acre incinerator site owned by Chemical Waste Management is being sold to Clean Harbors Environmental Services Inc. of Quincy, Mass., which plans to dismantle the burner and decontaminate the site. Cleanup operations could begin in the spring.
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