A few years ago I wrote a two-part investigative series for Seattle Weekly on the mismanagement of the costliest environmental cleanup the world has ever seen. The Hanford nuclear site in Eastern Washington, all 580 square miles of it, is perhaps the most polluted land in North America, which puts it in the running for most environmentally toxic in the world. Home of the Fat Man bomb, Hanford carried out much of the covert Manhattan Project during World War II. Over the course of its lifespan, Hanford’s nuclear program leaked at least 475 billion gallons of radioactive waste. A cleanup of that magnitude means there has been a lot of cash to be made, and a few contractors have raked it in for years. The final costs of cleaning up Hanford could well exceed $120 billion. That’s right, billions.
Hanford is a spooky place that’s hugged up against the majestic Columbia River, which provides water for endangered salmon, 10,000 farmers and dozens of commercial fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. The Department of Energy (DOE) oversees the cleanup, which is undertaken by Bechtel, URS and other contractors. Yes, that’s the same Bechtel that botched its fair share of Iraq reconstruction contracts.
A few brave whistleblowers, both DOE employees and contractors, spoke with me on record about how the DOE is not only understaffed, but also not capable of dealing with such a massive cleanup. Likewise, they helped expose how their employers are wasting taxpayer dollars and jeopardizing public safety along the way.
One of the central figures in the saga I wrote about for Seattle Weekly was whistleblower Dr. Walter Tamosaitis, a systems engineer who was employed for more than 40 years by Bechtel subcontractor URS. Tamosaitis claims he was removed from his position for citing concerns about safety failures at Hanford’s Tank Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP), a facility that is central to cleaning up Hanford. The plant’s ultimate goal is to turn some 56 million gallons of radioactive gunk into glass rods. Here’s a snippet from the first Seattle Weekly piece:
[Walter Tamosaitis exposed] what he saw as safety failures at WTP and citing concerns that the pulse jet mixer design issues would prohibit the plant from operating correctly. As a result, Tamosaitis says he was removed from the project; Bechtel and URS both deny that they removed Tamosaitis because he raised safety concerns.
“The drive to stay on schedule is putting the whole [WTP] project at risk,” Tamosaitis contends. ” ‘Not on my watch’ is a standard mantra among [DOE and Contract] management who like to intimidate naysayers like me. These guys would rather deal with major issues down the road than fix them up front . . . Cost and schedule performance trump sound science time and again.”
On March 31, 2010, Tamosaitis e-mailed Bechtel managers Michael K. Robinson and [Frank] Russo about concerns about pulse jet mixer failures … to which Russo replied, “Please keep this under control. The science is over.” In an internal e-mail string dated April 14, 2010, Robinson writes to Russo that he will “just have to keep [Tamosaitis] in line.”
“As soon as Russo came on board, the chain of command was altered,” Tamosaitis says. “Before Russo, I had to report directly to Bill Gay, a URS employee, but Russo removed Gay from the command chain and [made me communicate] directly to Mike Robinson [of Bechtel]. I think Russo believed it was easier to drive ahead with his cost and schedule push if he didn’t have two URS managers directly under him.”
In an e-mail dated March 31, 2010, Russo updated President Obama appointee Inés Triay on the situation. Triay, who did not return calls seeking comment, served as Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management and oversaw the DOE’s Hanford work until July, at which time she stepped down.
“It was like herding cats,” Russo wrote Triay about a meeting he’d had with senior contract scientists and engineers regarding his quest to stay on schedule. “Scientists . . . were in lock step harmony when we told them the science is ending. They all hated it . . . I will send anyone on my team home if they demonstrate an unwillingness or inability to fulfill my direction.”
“Walt is killing us,” Russo later e-mailed Bill Gay of URS on July 1, 2010, who though removed from the chain of command still had to sign off on Tamosaitis’ removal.
“Get him in your corporate office today.”
“He will be gone tomorrow,” Gay replied.
“This action [Tamosaitis’ removal from the Hanford project] was initiated by Dale Knutson probably not knowing the sensitivity,” Gay e-mailed to another employee in response to the decision to get rid of Tamosaitis.
Knutson would not respond to interview requests from Seattle Weekly. However, in a sworn statement sent to the Department of Labor, Knutson denied that he was in any way involved in the decision to demote Tamosaitis.
While no longer working on Hanford and WTP, Tamosaitis is still employed by URS, but is confined to a windowless basement office in Richland, where he says no management has spoken to him in over a year. His daily work routine isn’t that of a normal URS scientist, and he is not even sure what official title he presently has. URS has recently shipped him around the country to work on various company projects as a sort of in-house consultant.
Tamosaitis is currently suing Bechtel in Washington state, as well as URS and the DOE at the federal level, over his ousting at Hanford. “It is my opinion that [Dale] Knutson and Frank Russo are in lockstep,” he asserts. “Due to the constant managerial turnover [on the WTP project], these guys won’t likely be there in a few years, so they’d rather have these problems happen on someone else’s clock, even though it is always more expensive to fix something later then to do it right the first time.”
Three sources working on the DOE’s and Bechtel’s Hanford vitrification project tell Seattle Weekly that “the WTP project is in total jeopardy” because of their employers’ refusal to address technical and safety concerns raised by staffers like Tamosaitis and Alexander. These sources, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution by their employers, believe congressional hearings in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the issue are imminent. They also contend that the project could be temporarily shut down any day due to safety concerns.
Shortly after my first article appeared in Seattle Weekly, Tamosaitis filed his lawsuit against URS and the DOE, claiming he was demoted for speaking out. Last year he was fired. It’s been a long haul, but nearly three years later, Tamosaitis will finally get a chance to have his case heard in front of a jury of his peers. Of course, this wasn’t something his former employers or the DOE embraced with open arms. They’ve wanted nothing more than to keep Tamosaitis silent and out of court.
Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Tamosaitis has a constitutional right to a jury trial, which reversed a lower court’s decision. Walter Tamosaitis will now be able to seek damages under the Energy Reorganization Act in federal court. You can read the Ninth Circuit’s ruling here.
JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. He is author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, both published by AK Press. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @brickburner.