Former LSC administrator claims he was pushed out after raising concerns about toxic fumes
Miles Lunak claims the Duluth-based college violated Minnesota’s “whistleblower act,” among other laws.
DULUTH — A college administrator’s lawsuit alleges he was fired after raising concerns about toxins and other problems.
Miles Lunak, the former dean of business and industry at Lake Superior College, claimed in Minnesota district court that the college and two of its administrators violated Minnesota’s “whistleblower” law, worker safety law, the state’s human rights act and a law prohibiting unlawful wage deductions after he was fired in February. Lunak claims college administrators retaliated against him after he raised concerns about toxic welding fumes and reported issues with other college staff.
According to a civil complaint he filed on March 3, Lunak allocated about $15,000 to service filtration and ventilation systems at the college’s building in downtown Duluth. Equipment used in the school’s welding programs, Lunak claimed, produce a harmful byproduct called hexavalent chromium, and the systems in place to reduce exposure to it hadn’t been properly maintained.
Hexavalent chromium can be produced by welding and other types of “hot work” on stainless steel and other alloy steels that contain chromium metal, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It can cause a range of health problems ranging from eye irritation to respiratory cancer.
Linda Kingston, the college’s vice president of academic and student affairs, was displeased with the cost of that service, Lunak claimed in court, and wondered why that work hadn’t been done before. Lunak also claimed that Alan Finlayson, the college’s vice president of administration, declined to authorize continued maintenance on the filtration and ventilation systems, which meant they had not been properly maintained.
According to court papers, Lunak wanted to know how to properly dispose of the chromium-contaminated filters, among other information, and asked the college’s health and safety officer to figure out whether the toxin had spread beyond the welding area. Finlayson, Lunak claimed, was displeased with Lunak’s pursuit of that information.
“Through various communications with LSC administrators, Mr. Lunak understood that LSC was unhappy that Mr. Lunak was raising concerns about possible hexavalent chromium contamination,” the complaint said.
After that, Lunak claimed his oversight of the college’s aviation program was stripped from him, and Kingston began attending meetings Lunak led, injecting “harsh critiques” of him during them. A meeting with college administrators and union leadership didn’t produce “substantive information” about possible hexavalent chromium contamination, Lunak claimed, and emails he said he sent to a system administrator at Minnesota State went unanswered.
At a meeting in early November, according to the lawsuit, a trio of Lake Superior College administrators allegedly told Lunak that he was set to be fired because the college wanted to move its business and industry programming “in a new direction.”
After what Lunak indicated was a lengthy dispute over access to his school email account and other resources, he claimed he was fired on Feb. 6.
The News Tribune on Thursday filed a data request for information about Lunak, including his first and last dates of employment at Lake Superior College. David Kline, the school’s vice president of advancement and external relations, indicated that he wouldn’t be able to furnish the information until Monday at the earliest.
Lunak’s lawsuit also claims that he witnessed college employees engage in discrimination and that some interactions between them had “racial and gender discriminatory undertones.” A Black administrative assistant was told that she should be serving white college administrators at an event, and Lunak reported his concern to college administrators, according to court papers.
His complaint also alleges that a former Lake Superior College administrator misspent school funds. Kingston, Lunak alleged, said the funds were “merely ‘misappropriated’” and that it wasn’t a problem so long as word of the misappropriation didn’t spread to college employees.
“Mr. Lunak understood this to be a warning to not continue to discuss the issue or inform other LSC employees of his concerns,” the complaint said.
Lunak did not return a News Tribune request for comment regarding the administrator. Minneapolis-based lawyer Naomi Martin, who is representing Lunak, declined to name the administrator in a phone call on Thursday.
Lawyers representing the college system are drafting a motion to have Lunak's suit dismissed, according to court documents. The motion is set to be heard June 26.