Whistleblower Retaliation Alive and Well at Hanford

It’s getting real out at Hanford in eastern Washington, the site of the most expensive (and likely dangerous) environmental clean-up in the world. On July 21, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, along with watchdog group Hanford Challenge and UA Local Union 598 Plumbers and Steamfitters, filed an emergency legal motion asking US Judge Thomas Rice to intervene and force the US Department of Energy and federal contractor Washington River Protection Solutions to protect their workers from toxic vapor exposure at the site.

“[It’s] as serious as it gets,” Ferguson told King 5 News. “At Hanford there’s a culture of indifference by the federal government and their contractors. Frankly, we’re not going to put up with it anymore…. So right now we’re trying to get before the judge immediately asking for immediate steps required from the federal government to protect workers. That’s the bottom line.”

Allegedly, that “culture of indifference” is what got Sandra Black, an employee concerns program manager (ECP), fired in January 2015. Black, who worked for DOE contractor Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS), was in charge of hearing out grievances raised by workers who have safety concerns, such as those working at Hanford. Black claims that she was terminated after speaking to investigators from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“I would not lie or cover up substantiated concerns or engage in unethical or illegal activities that I was directed to do,” Black said at a news conference, where she, along with three US senators presented the GAO report. “My disclosures included describing numerous incidents in which an SRNS corporate lawyer interfered with an ECP investigation, directed an ECP investigator to change findings or substantiated retaliation to not substantiated.”

SRNS strongly denies firing Black for her cooperation with the GAO. Nonetheless, the GAO report, which was released in July, was damning in what it revealed.

The report claimed that the DOE had “taken limited or no action to hold contractors accountable for creating a chilled work environment — in part because DOE has not clearly defined what constitutes evidence of a chilled work environment or the steps needed to hold contractors accountable.”

In other words, the buck stops with nobody.

“Our problems are with the way the Energy Department allows the contractors basically to self-assess how open their environment is,” Diane LoFaro, who worked on the GAO report, told the Center for Public Integrity. “Our recommendation is that those assessments need to be independent. The contractor should not be assessing themselves. The DOE should be assessing the contractors’ cultures.”

So what happens when over 100 workers are exposed to toxic vapors while working to remediate Hanford’s 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste? According to Dave Lee, an instrument technician at Hanford, when issues are raised that may help prevent such exposures, the DOE and their contractors fight back.

Lee recently told King 5 News that he was assigned to cleaning tasks after raising safety concerns. “Retaliation and harassment is very, very real at Hanford and that’s a fact…. I’m cleaning closets and I’m replacing filters and if that’s not degrading and retaliatory, explain to me what is.”

Lee, who works in Hanford’s 222-S Lab, analyzes chemical vapors that are in underground storage tanks. At one point Lee noticed oil leaking from one of the lab’s testing instruments, which he got on his hand. Shortly after the incident Lee claims he broke out in a rash on his arms, neck and face. After a little digging through an employee manual Lee learned more about what he was dealing with — the oil was likely contaminated and ought to be treated as toxic waste.

“I can’t sleep at night. After my exposure I had a metallic taste in my mouth and I had a super bad headache … and I forget things a lot,” Lee told King 5 News. Soon after his exposure to the oil, he issued a “stop work” action, which Hanford employees are technically allowed to do if they feel they are working in an unsafe environment. Lee demanded the lab be shut down so the oil could be tested. One day later Lee was sent home by his superiors after being placed on “investigative removal” for “extremely serious misconduct.”

“Why would we deliberately use taxpayer money to endanger public safety and discourage whistleblowers from coming forward to report security or safety violations or fraudulent activity?” Sen. Edward Markey asked during the GAO press conference. “This make no sense.”

To answer Markey’s question, could it be that the DOE simply can’t get the job done because they lack the staff to do so? That’s what Dr. Donald Alexander, who is a high-level DOE physical chemist working at Hanford, told me a few years back.

“One of the main problems at Hanford is that DOE is understaffed and overtasked,” Alexander explained. “As such, we cannot conduct in-depth reviews of each of the individual systems in the facilities. Therefore there is a high likelihood that several systems will be found to be inoperable or not perform to expectations.”

Looks like certain things haven’t changed much at Hanford. Taxpayers will continue to be stuck with the projected $100 billion clean-up tab while employees endure dangerous working conditions with little to no recourse when shit hits the fan.

As for the emergency stop motion filed by Washington state AG and others, Judge Rice has set the preliminary injunction hearing to be held on October 12 in Spokane, Washington. No doubt Hanford workers are eager for the outcome.

This piece first appeared at The Investigative Fund.