Members of a House Commerce subcommittee expressed concern Tuesday over the Energy Department's failure to implement its "zero tolerance" policy for contractor retaliation against whistleblowers who raise health and safety concerns.
The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations heard employee allegations that DOE too often sides with contractors and spends taxpayer dollars picking up the tab for their legal fees.
The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects federal employees from whistleblower reprisal. In 1994, Congress amended the act to protect whistleblowers from any "significant change in duties, responsibilities or working conditions" that occurs in retaliation for going public with information.
Two whistleblowers testified about their lengthy and costly litigation against contractors whose legal fees were picked up by DOE, as well as the personal turmoil they had experienced.
"Whistleblower is a tough name to live with once you've been pinned with it. People misjudge you, don't want to be seen with you, leave the room when they see you, or feel that they have to choose sides. We have lost friends over this and put great burdens on our families," said Randall Walli, a pipefitter who, along with his crew, stopped work on a project at DOE's Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state in 1997.
Walli and his colleagues argued that the valves they were told to use for the project could not withstand heavy pressure. If the pipes had burst, they argued, workers would have sustained serious injury and the community would have been exposed to environmental hazards.
Walli said he and his crew were fired soon after they raised their safety concerns.
In May 1997, a tank explosion at Hanford exposed more than a dozen Hanford workers to toxic vapors and hazardous conditions.
"When whistleblowers are afraid to come forward with safety concerns, the health and safety of all those within these facilities and all those who live nearby are jeopardized," said House Commerce Committee chairman Thomas Bliley, R-Va., in his opening statement.
Robert L. Van Ness, assistant vice president for laboratory administration at the University of California, which operates three DOE national laboratories, testified that the university has a history of providing whistleblowers with protection and that employees are fully informed of their rights.
Although House members praised the last three Energy secretaries, particularly Hazel O'Leary, who served at the beginning of the Clinton administration, for their efforts in trying to implement protections for whistleblowers, they also expressed disappointment with the agency for failing to take the lead in enforcing the zero tolerance policy.
"It looks like we will have to wait for the next Secretary of Energy to provide this type of leadership," said Rep. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C.
Ronald D. Hanson, president of Fluor Hanford Inc., a contractor at the Hanford site, said "retalitation of any kind against any employee of Fluor is neither condoned or tolerated." He said Fluor had established the world safety record for contractors in 1993-24 million safe work hours on an individual project without a lost time accident.
Mary Anne Sullivan, DOE's general counsel, said the department has been trying to improve protection for contractor employees who raise concerns for 10 years. She said most of the agency's major contracts contain a clause that reimburses contractors' defense costs during litigation up until a ruling against them.
"Zero tolerance does not mean that every whistleblower claim must be accepted as valid without an opportunity for response or appeal by the department's contractors," Sullivan said.
DOE is not the only agency to recently come under fire for its attitude toward whistleblowers. In April, the General Accounting Office reported that the majority of employees at the Veterans Affairs Department had little or no knowledge about their rights to whistleblower protection.
In its report (GGD-00-70) GAO acknowledged that the agency had made more of an effort within the last year to inform employees of their rights, but also noted that only 21 percent of VA employees reported that protection against reprisal is adequate.