Former Maui DWS employee says he was fired for pointing out contamination concerns

“The operator was cleaning it with acid and chemicals, which is proper practice."
Published: Mar. 28, 2022 at 7:15 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 28, 2022 at 10:28 PM HST
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MAKAWAO (HawaiiNewsNow) - One year after filing a whistleblower lawsuit against Maui County, a former Department of Water Supply employee is still fighting for his job back.

Ashley Hooks’ lawsuit claims he was retaliated against and unlawfully fired in 2020 after he alerted the state that Maui’s largest surface water treatment facility had been contaminated.

“The operator was cleaning it with acid and chemicals, which is proper practice. But he made the mistake of opening the wrong valve and dumped a whole bunch of acid and all the stuff we were filtering out of the water back into the drinking water,” said Hooks.

Hooks said supervisors were notified that an uncertain amount of acid went into the Kamole Water Treatment Facility.

The facility services Makawao, Pukalani, Haliimaile, and Haiku.

Hooks said the supervisors failed to take the issue seriously and he was bullied when he questioned them.

“Like, don’t you dare talk about this,” Hooks said.

Hooks said after no action was taken for more than a month, he alerted the state Department of Health’s Safe Drinking Water Branch.

“A lot of us thought it was very unethical,” he said.

The lawsuit states a violation letter was issued to the county and the public was subsequently notified about the water contamination.

“Had Mr. Hooks not blown the whistle and contacted the Department of Health, nobody in the general public, including myself, would you ever know that the water had been contaminated,” said Hooks’ attorney Andrew Daisuke Stewart.

Hooks was fired one month later.

“The Hawaii whistleblower protection statute protect employees, county employees or private employees from any type of retaliation or discrimination if they report the employer who engages in any sort of unlawful act,” Stewart said.

Stewart said in depositions, county employees admitted Hooks’ firing was in retaliation for notifying the Health Department.

“I hope it sends the message to managerial-level employees in the state and county that they aren’t above the law,” he said.

The county said it does not comment on personnel matters or pending litigation.

Trial is scheduled for September.

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