Energy Department, Contractor Faulted for Handling of Whistleblowers

“I don’t think anyone wants to be a whistleblower,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., “I don’t think anyone wants to be a whistleblower,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Susan Walsh/AP

Testimony from fired self-described whistleblowers combined with senators’ skepticism on Tuesday put the Energy Department on the defensive for its handling of safety concerns raised at its Hanford, Wash. nuclear waste cleanup project.

Because of ongoing litigation and disagreements over whether two ex-contractor employees have proven whistleblower status, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., took their testimony in the form of an “unofficial” roundtable discussion before convening an official hearing at which Energy officials declined to be seated alongside representatives of the major engineering companies that fired the safety specialists who had raised concerns.

“I don’t think anyone wants to be a whistleblower,” said McCaskill, who chairs the contracting subcommittee of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “Reporting your colleagues, who may be your friends, for actions that look like waste, fraud, abuse or a danger to others, isn’t an easy decision for most people. But the job that whistleblowers do is tremendously important and valuable. That’s why, when courageous men and women feel compelled to speak out, we do not want to silence them.”

The two safety experts, Donna Busche, the former manager of environmental and nuclear safety for San Francisco-based URS Corp, and nuclear engineer Mark Tamosaitis were both terminated by URS after they jointly questioned the company’s long-term process for containing radioactive leaks from World War II-era legacy storage tanks and creating a new process for converting them to glass for safe and permanent storage.

Busche said that she had enjoyed accolades in her performance reviews going back to 2009 until, “miraculously, URS found performance problems -- like I don’t get along with colleagues,” right after she teamed up Tamosaitis and produced 56 questions pointing to risks in the mixing process for handling dangerous waste that includes hydrogen and plutonium, which could explode and incapacitate the Hanford plant. She was fired in February. “We had no forum to raise our concerns other than to adjudicate it in court for six or seven years,” she said.

Tamosaitis said he was told as early as 2006 by his URS managers not to raise safety concerns. “Those issues stood in the way of Bechtel [the prime contractor] winning their award,” he said. “Whether the project is going forward, backward, or standing still, they’re going to get their funds.” He was fired in October only weeks after Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in September released a staffwide memo calling for a culture that encourages honest whistleblowers. And, added, URS withheld his severance pay until he agreed to sign a statement granting them immunity, a move he likened to “extortion.”

The Energy Department is “outmanned, outmanaged and outgunned by contractors,” Tamosaitis said. “The Waste Treatment Plant and DOE culture are at a tipping point. If there is no change, I feel real bad for the next generation of federal workers.”

McCaskill accused the contractors, with Energy’s passive compliance, of “suppressing technical dissent” and for using prolonged legal tactics—often reimbursed she said on the taxpayers’ dime—to “keep the money and the performance bonuses flowing” on a project that has risen dramatically in price and duration. “We need to think in terms of empowering DOE” to control what happens to whistleblowers, she said, but the agency lacks the “manpower, expertise and resources.” 

Bill Eckroade, deputy chief of operations at Energy’s Office of Health Safety and Security, said the department has conducted two safety culture assessments at Hanford and is planning a third review. Its reports from 2010 and 2012, he said, “found that most people interviewed were comfortable raising safety concerns, but a significant number said there was a chilling environment.” He said safety and whistleblower freedom were a “high priority” for Energy, which has brought in experts from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for training. But he acknowledged that the department, “while growing in competency, is not yet mature.”

Matt Moury, deputy assistant secretary for safety, security and quality programs in environmental management, said the Energy secretary had traveled to the site and had taken actions such as instituting new local leadership, clarifying rules, revising contractor performance standards and improving headquarters oversight. “But DOE was not called in and didn’t approve when Busche was terminated,” he said, noting that his office had referred her case to the inspector general. “I understand your frustration” with creating a safety culture,” he told the senators. “But these things are incredibly complex, and take a long time to resolve.”

His testimony prompted Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., to call his plan of action “gobbledygook.” Johnson mocked Energy for being in the nuclear waste disposal field for 50 years and accused the agency of not having the technical expertise on staff.

James Taylor, URS Corp’s senior vice president of global management and operations services, said his company had “zero tolerance for retaliation against whistleblowers” and that “safety is firmly embedded in company culture.” Busche, he said, “was terminated for cause due to her conduct and behavior.” Citing litigation and privacy issues, he said he could not go into details, but he denied she had been retaliated against.

Michael Graham, principal vice president for prime contractor Bechtel, said his company has several levels of procedure for resolving “professional technical disagreements” and that all personnel are expected to participate in “a strong safety culture. “URS alone made the decision to terminate Busche,” he said. “We were informed by letter, which we forwarded to DOE.”

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