Senators blast Hanford whistleblower layoff

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 9, 2013 

The layoff of Hanford whistleblower Walter Tamosaitis makes clear that little has changed in the safety culture at Hanford, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Wednesday outlining his concerns. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., also sent a letter Wednesday urging Moniz to intervene.

Tamosaitis' layoff was particularly troubling because it came after Moniz and Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman pledged in a Sept. 20 memo to "pursue a safety culture built on an environment of trust and mutual respect, worker engagement and open communication," Wyden said in the letter.

There was a chilled atmosphere at Hanford when Tamosaitis raised issues in 2010, Wyden said. But his layoff "within days of your pledge can only be seen as perpetuating a culture that would plunge DOE employees and contractors who dare to raise safety issues into the deep freeze or worse."

Tamosaitis continued to be employed until last week with URS Corp. But three years ago he was removed from his URS position as the research and technology manager for the Hanford vitrification plant being built to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into a stable form for disposal.

He believes he was removed from the project for raising concerns about the future safe and efficient operation of the plant. But the contractor on the project, Bechtel, and its subcontractor URS say his work was ending and that he sent a disrespectful email.

URS did not specifically address why Tamosaitis lost his job after 44 years with the company, but said in recent months it had to reduce the number of employees in its federal sector business because of budget issues.

To add insult to injury, URS is requiring Tamosaitis to release URS from any liability to obtain his severance payment, Wyden said.

That comes as Tamosaitis is appealing the dismissal of cases he filed against URS and DOE in federal court. His appeal before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to be heard Nov. 7.

When Tamosaitis was removed from the vitrification plant project, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board investigated safety culture issues and found that DOE and contractor management suppressed technical dissent at the project, Wyden said. The defense board made recommendations for improvement at Hanford and across the DOE complex in 2011, which DOE continues to address.

"If safety culture is a priority at the department, why haven't these actions been completed and why are they being further delayed?" Wyden asked. On Sept. 27, DOE asked for more time to address some of the remaining recommendations.

Markey's letter took demands a step further, urging Moniz "to quickly investigate and take all necessary action to remedy the recent termination by URS."

If Moniz does not take immediate action to halt Tamosaitis' dismissal, his efforts to improve DOE's safety culture will lack all credibility, Markey said.

He also asked for an accounting of the payments made by DOE to Bechtel and URS to reimburse its legal costs for defending against Tamosaitis' claims.

Hanford Challenge has collected some data through Freedom of Information Act requests, showing that in two years the Hanford contractors received more than $1 million in payments to cover costs of outside attorneys.

The payments are considered provisional, pending the outcome of legal cases now on appeal.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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