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Utility accused of unsafe work

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In May 2010, former Missoula Electric Cooperative employee Jon Cruson was dismayed when he discovered allegedly substandard cable trenches and meter connections that violated safety standards at an MEC installation project for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Placid Lake.

"It's a serious issue," says Cruson's Missoula attorney David Berkoff. "Nobody likes to be placed in that situation."

According to MEC operating reports, the Missoula-based utility last year generated more than $19 million in energy sales across seven counties in Montana and Idaho.

On June 6, Cruson filed a lawsuit against MEC alleging the company routinely violates state and federal electrical codes by allowing unqualified staffers to perform tasks. According to the suit, MEC was "motivated in part by defendants' desire to reduce costs, workload, or it was done out of pure laziness."

The lawsuit contends that MEC hired Cruson in 2001 as a master electrician, a position that under Montana law prohibits him from allowing anyone else to perform certain duties without his oversight. He was further mandated to ensure that all MEC work complied with state and federal codes. Violations of those rules threatened his professional standing.

"MEC's practice was placing plaintiff's licensure at risk," the lawsuit states. "And more critically, was placing MEC's customers and employees at serious risk of electrical injuries and fires."

Cruson alleges that in 2010, MEC began directing linemen, who have less experience in the field than a master electrician, to perform work without his supervision. From late 2012 until Cruson left MEC in May, the lawsuit claims that he charted 35 such instances. "It was defendants' practice to assign electrical work tasks to linemen at more rural locations without permits because the chance of detection by the State or local inspectors would be less likely."

Cruson says that he expressed concern about safety and legal violations several times to MEC management. His superiors, however, responded with hostility. He seeks damages when alleging that MEC engaged in deceit, false representation and negligence.

MEC General Manager Mark Hayden says the utility is investigating Cruson's complaint, and, "We deny any unsafe practices."

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