Jason Kafoury, an attorney for a former Oregon Youth Authority employee, told KATU the man was fired after he blew the whistle on officials for knowingly exposing children to asbestos.
"The kids weren't notified, their parents weren't notified and the workers weren't notified even though the administrators knew there was asbestos in those places," he said.
Now Kafoury's client, John Neves, 54, is suing the state. The lawsuit was first reported by the Statesman Journal.
Asbestos is a fire-resistant material found in many old buildings that can cause potentially deadly diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Neves worked for nearly three years as a carpenter and maintenance specialist at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, which has more than 270 beds.
Benjamin Chambers, an Oregon Youth Authority spokesman, told KATU, "We’d like to be able to respond publicly to the allegations in the lawsuit, but our practice is not to comment on pending litigation.”
"This case is just, simply put, a tragedy," said Kafoury. "My client was actually awarded the summer before he was fired a gold coin award for working and doing a good job in one of the cottages where OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) found asbestos. …
These were cottages that used to house students and kids there but now they were being refurbished so the kids could go back to live there.”
Kafoury said in addition to working on buildings Neves was responsible for supervising and training at least six youth at a time who worked on the project.
“He did want more help to be able to do the work that he was assigned to do," Kafoury explained, "more help with taking care of these kids.”
He said in January of 2017 Neves started coughing up blood around twice a week. And the next month he learned he'd been exposed to asbestos.
"He was taken into his boss's office. His boss told him, 'Those cottages you've just been working on, we finally got the money to remove the asbestos,'" Kafoury said, "and then his boss told him, 'Go cover it up because we have officials coming to examine these cottages.' So he was told not only, 'You've been exposed,' but, 'Go cover it up so regulators can't see it.’"
Kafoury said Neves became angry and told his boss it was "bulls***.”
"He told his superiors that he knew this was wrong that the kids had been exposed," he said.
On the day of that confrontation Kafoury said Neves was put on paid administrative leave.
"Their version is that he wasn't supervising them effectively and that some of the kids had put some contraband in some of the houses. That was their reasoning for putting him on paid administrative leave," he explained. "I think that's just not true. I think they really realized he was blowing the whistle about asbestos and they used that as an excuse to get rid of him."
Kafoury said Neves then reported the case to OSHA, which cited Oregon Youth Authority for two serious violations and fined the agency $500. The violations were for not properly training or notifying workers about asbestos.
When Neves's boss first learned of the investigation in May of last year Kafoury said he called Neves.
"His boss tells him point blank, 'If you try to do anything to me, I'm gonna bury you. I can't wait to sit across the table from you while you get fired,'" Kafoury said. "Two months later, he was fired -- July 2017.”
Kafoury said Neves has been undergoing medical tests and that it's too soon to tell if he has lung cancer of mesothelioma.
Chambers said Thursday that the Oregon Youth Authority would send the following email to staff regarding the story and asbestos risks:
Yesterday, the Statesman-Journal published an article about a lawsuit having to do with asbestos at MacLaren. It raised understandable concerns about the safety of our staff and youth who live and work there. While it’s OYA’s practice not to discuss ongoing litigation, I’d like to clear up a few things about how we handle asbestos at MacLaren and OYA facilities in general.
Asbestos is Common in Older Buildings
Virtually all buildings constructed before the 1970’s contain some asbestos material. Asbestos is still used in some building products. As many of you know, most of the buildings at MacLaren predate the restrictions on using asbestos in construction materials.
Materials with Asbestos Usually Pose No Health Risk
When materials that contain asbestos are properly maintained they are safe in building environments. Asbestos presents a health risk when materials are broken and fibers become airborne.
We Have a Long-standing Practice of Not Disturbing Asbestos
OYA has a long-standing practice of not disturbing asbestos, and PPO [Physical Plant Operations office] has kept the materials that contain asbestos at MacLaren in safe condition for decades. Any material that was deemed unsafe or needed to be removed was addressed by a licensed contractor specializing in handling asbestos.
OSHA Recently Performed a Comprehensive Inspection at MacLaren
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted a comprehensive inspection at MacLaren last year, after receiving a complaint from a person concerned about exposure to asbestos. OSHA found that (a) we needed to restart sending out routine annual notifications to staff about asbestos on campus; and (b) that we had not provided required training to maintenance employees about asbestos recently enough.
We are addressing both of those findings. It’s also important to note that OSHA did not find any evidence that we were mishandling asbestos and exposing staff or youth to its possible health impacts."