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Pipeline worker files racism lawsuit against employer

A black man who helped build the Keystone oil pipeline is suing his former employer, alleging that he faced racial discrimination at a job site in Mekinock, N.D.

Charles Adams, who lives in Illinois, has filed a federal lawsuit, saying he was subjected to racist remarks and jokes and had a noose thrown at him when he worked for Henkels & McCoy Inc. from June 2008 to October 2008.

The Pennsylvania-based corporation denies the allegations and wants the suit dismissed. A jury trial, estimated to last five days, is slated to start March 22, 2011, in Grand Forks or Fargo.

A complaint filed by Adams' attorney in October 2009 says that as a result of the discrimination, Adams "suffered and continues to suffer economic damages in the form of lost wages and job benefits, severe emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation and physical suffering." Adams is seeking more than $75,000 in damages.

The company's response to the complaint says Adams reported, on July 2, 2008, an incident that involved two co-workers. The company says it fired those workers the next day for breaking employment rules, but later, Adams asked the company to reconsider, and at his request, the company reduced their discipline to formal written warnings.

Adams' complaint says the company rehired "the perpetrators" and did not take timely and appropriate steps to stop the discrimination.

His complaint says that after he reported the discrimination, the company struck back on several fronts, including creating a hostile work environment, changing the terms of his employment, not assigning him work and giving him "less desirable work." The company says there was no retaliation.

In October 2008, Adams filed a grievance with the North Dakota Labor Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC issued Adams a "right to sue" letter in July 2009, his complaint says. The company says the state labor department and the EEOC dismissed Adams' complaint with a "no cause" finding.

The two sides disagree on Adams' job title: He says he was a "welder-helper," while the company says he was a "graded helper."

Adams' complaint says he worked on the pipeline starting in June 2008 and was terminated in October 2008 but doesn't give a reason for his termination. The company's reply says he was laid off in October 2008 because the project he'd been assigned was finished.

Henkels' Web site says it's a privately held corporation that worked on a stretch of the pipeline in North Dakota. Adams' complaint says Henkels had a job site at 2198 24th St. in Mekinock, a small town about 20 miles north and west of Grand Forks.

TransCanada is overseeing construction of the 1,300-mile pipeline, which is to run from Alberta through Illinois to Oklahoma. Last month, a TransCanada spokesman said the pipeline's construction in North Dakota was nearly done and that the company plans to start filling the 30-inch pipeline with heavy crude oil before year's end.