Kauai utility called unsafe
A former worker has sued, saying a boiler explosion and other issues were ignored
LIHUE » A former employee of Kauai's electric company has sued the utility, saying that when he complained about safety, he was fired.
Dennis Bonilla, a former plant supervisor, said he went to the board of directors at the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative last year to tell them the boiler system was unsafe and had recently exploded.
Eight days later he was fired, according to a whistle-blower's protection lawsuit he filed last month in Circuit Court in Lihue.
Company officials, however, said they investigated Bonilla's concerns last year and found there was no boiler explosion and no safety problems.
Bonilla worked for 23 years at the Port Allen power plant and noticed at least a half-dozen situations that violated state and federal safety regulations, his lawsuit claims. Among his chief concerns cited in the suit were supervisors ignoring lockout procedures and the poor condition of the radio and the boiler system.
The boiler system, his lawsuit alleges, had not been properly tested, the controls often malfunctioned and system operators did not have sufficient training to run the computer program.
When he complained to the state oversight agency about the problems at the plant, investigators sided with Bonilla, but they changed their minds after talking with supervisors at the plant.
A representative with the state Occupational Safety and Health Division, part of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, refused to comment on the boiler system at KIUC, saying he was "doing the work of three people" and was too busy to check whether a boiler explosion had ever been reported at the company.
According to Bonilla's lawsuit, a combustion engineering boiler exploded in 2004, causing $650,000 worth of damage. Only after Bonilla complained to the state and the company's insurance company did KIUC acknowledge the explosion, the lawsuit claims.
Just two months later the boiler was placed back online without a recertification certificate, Bonilla also claims. And the problems that caused the explosion were never fixed, he alleges.
When a second boiler explosion allegedly occurred in April 2004, Bonilla says he went straight to the board of directors.
According to the suit, Bonilla was told he was fired for receiving and sending jokes and pictures of nude women on company computers. He contends the e-mails were common practice and that some of the e-mails that got him fired were forwarded to him from KIUC Chief Executive Harry "Dutch" Achenbach.
The company would not comment on the specifics of Bonilla's termination, since he has filed a grievance with the union.
However, the co-op's attorney for this case, Wayne Yoshigai, said the utility will vigorously defend itself against all of Bonilla's claims.
"We operate with the highest degree of safety," Yoshigai said. "We will be responding to them in due course."