A Umatilla County resident is suing a local agricultural operation for $300,000, claiming the company fired her in retaliation for making a complaint to government agencies about health and safety concerns.

According to the lawsuit, JaNessa Prewitt was employed by Columbia Basin Bioscience, an industrial hemp farm and processing facility in the Hermiston area, and also did some work for Columbia Basin Onion, a onion grower and processor also owned by Alan Cleaver.

The complaint claims that Prewitt, an evaporator operator, learned that ammonia tanks at her jobsite were leaking. It states she was also exposed to other gases, including nitrogen, and hemp dust, but “was not fit-tested or given an appropriate respirator mask.”

The lawsuit lays out multiple dates on which Prewitt became ill with symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness and shortness of breath while at work, and states that when she sought medical treatment, the doctor who examined her expressed concern that her symptoms may be from ammonia exposure, and encouraged her to take steps that included wearing a respirator while at work. The doctor provided documentation for her employer about needs for accommodation on the job due to her continuing health problems.

As the situation progressed, the lawsuit states Prewitt filed for worker’s compensation and filed a complaint with OSHA, and when an OSHA inspector arrived, “due to the nature of the complaint, it was evident to everyone that Plaintiff was the source of the complaint.” It states the building was evacuated for an ammonia leak during the course of the inspector’s visit.

It also states her employers found out she was planning to file a complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries after she was allegedly told she could be accommodated with an office job that fit her doctor’s recommendations, but was instead sent to work on an onion processing line.

On July 17, 2020, the lawsuit states, Prewitt was told she could either voluntarily quit or have her employment terminated, and when she declined to quit, her employment was terminated. The lawsuit states Columbia Basin Bioscience “discriminated and retaliated against” Prewitt for “opposing an unsafe environment.”

Christina Stephenson, the attorney representing Prewitt, said in an email that as the case moves forward, “we look forward to the transparency and accountability that only the courts can provide.”

The lawsuit states the plaintiff is seeking $300,000 in compensatory damages, which includes noneconomic and economic damages, and that she will ask the court to allow her to seek punitive damages as well.

When the Hermiston Herald reached out to Columbia Basin Bioscience, employee Steve Williams said the company denies the allegations of wrongdoing but had no further comment on ongoing litigation.

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