FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Whistleblower Retaliation Alive and Well at Hanford

shutterstock_424345792

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.

More articles by:

JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
November 13, 2019
Vijay Prashad
After Evo, the Lithium Question Looms Large in Bolivia
Charles Pierson
How Not to End a Forever War
Kenneth Surin
“We’ll See You on the Barricades”: Bojo Johnson’s Poundshop Churchill Imitation
Nick Alexandrov
Murder Like It’s 1495: U.S.-Backed Counterinsurgency in the Philippines
George Ochenski
Montana’s Radioactive Waste Legacy
Brian Terrell
A Doubtful Proposition: a Reflection on the Trial of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7
Nick Pemberton
Assange, Zuckerberg and Free Speech
James Bovard
The “Officer Friendly” Police Fantasy
Dean Baker
The Logic of Medical Co-Payments
Jeff Mackler
Chicago Teachers Divided Over Strike Settlement
Binoy Kampmark
The ISC Report: Russian Connections in Albion?
Norman Solomon
Biden and Bloomberg Want Uncle Sam to Defer to Uncle Scrooge
Jesse Jackson
Risking Lives in Endless Wars is Morally Wrong and a Strategic Failure
Manuel García, Jr.
Criminalated Warmongers
November 12, 2019
Nino Pagliccia
Bolivia and Venezuela: Two Countries, But Same Hybrid War
Patrick Cockburn
How Iran-Backed Forces Are Taking Over Iraq
Jonathan Cook
Israel is Silencing the Last Voices Trying to Stop Abuses Against Palestinians
Jim Kavanagh
Trump’s Syrian See-Saw: From Pullout to Pillage
Susan Babbitt
Fidel, Three Years Later
Dean Baker
A Bold Plan to Strengthen and Improve Social Security is What America Needs
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Trump’s Crime Against Humanity
Victor Grossman
The Wall and General Pyrrhus
Yoko Liriano
De Facto Martial Law in the Philippines
Ana Paula Vargas – Vijay Prashad
Lula is Free: Can Socialism Be Restored?
Thomas Knapp
Explainer: No, House Democrats Aren’t Violating Trump’s Rights
Wim Laven
Serve With Honor, Honor Those Who Serve; or Support Trump?
Colin Todhunter
Agrarian Crisis and Malnutrition: GM Agriculture Is Not the Answer
Binoy Kampmark
Walls in the Head: “Ostalgia” and the Berlin Wall Three Decades Later
Akio Tanaka
Response to Pete Dolack Articles on WBAI and Pacifica
Nyla Ali Khan
Bigotry and Ideology in India and Kashmir: the Legacy of the Babri Masjid Mosque
Yves Engler
Canada Backs Coup Against Bolivia’s President
November 11, 2019
Aaron Goings, Brian Barnes, and Roger Snider
Class War Violence: Centralia 1919
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
“Other Than Honorable?” Veterans With “Bad Paper” Seek Long Overdue Benefits
Peter Linebaugh
The Worm in the Apple
Joseph Natoli
In the Looming Shadow of Civil War
Robert Fisk
How the Syrian Democratic Forces Were Suddenly Transformed into “Kurdish Forces”
Patrick Cockburn
David Cameron and the Decline of British Leadership
Naomi Oreskes
The Greatest Scam in History: How the Energy Companies Took Us All
Fred Gardner
Most Iraq and Afghanistan Vets now Regret the Mission
Howard Lisnoff
The Dubious Case of Washing Machines and Student Performance
Nino Pagliccia
The Secret of Cuba’s Success: International Solidarity
Binoy Kampmark
Corporate Mammon: Amazon and the Seattle Council Elections
Kim C. Domenico
To Overthrow Radical Evil, Part II: A Grandmother’s Proposal
Marc Levy
Veterans’ Day: Four Poems
Weekend Edition
November 08, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
The Real Constitutional Crisis: The Constitution
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail