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EPA whistleblower wins big

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A Department of Labor Administrative Court Judge has awarded a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee in Atlanta one of the largest-ever punitive damages awards in an environmental whistleblower case. Last month, the judge ordered the EPA to pay Sharyn Erickson close to $300,000 for subjecting her to a hostile work environment and hurting her career.

Erickson's ordeal began back in 1995, when she alerted EPA offices and state officials in Texas that a cleanup at a hazardous waste site was compromised because EPA officials failed to set specific standards to determine the safety of the site. Erickson's bosses transferred her to a position with no chance for promotion, and asked the U.S. Attorney's Office to open a criminal investigation into her actions.

Investigators cleared Erickson of any wrongdoing years ago, but her bosses held the criminal charges over her head for 1,179 days, according to court documents.

At her 12-day trial this summer, environmental scientists and investigators praised Erickson's conduct, calling it heroic. Judge Clement J. Kennington described the EPA's behavior as reprehensible, ordering the agency to pay $225,000 in punitive damages and $50,000 in compensatory damages. His 100-page decision was issued on Sept. 27.

"It's a major victory for whistleblowers, and it exposes EPA in Atlanta for the tyranny it is," says Erickson's attorney, Edward Slavin Jr. "Sharon basically was used as a symbolic victim by management to show everybody else what happens if you raise concerns -- even internally -- within the government."

EPA spokesman Karl Terry says the agency has appealed the decision.

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