URS Corp. fires whistleblower

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 18, 2014 

Hanford whistleblower Donna Busche was fired Tuesday from her position as manager of environmental and nuclear safety at the Hanford vitrification plant.

She is the second high-profile vitrification plant whistleblower that URS Corp. has removed from employment in recent months.

Busche filed a lawsuit in federal court a year ago saying she feared Bechtel and URS were working to fire her in retaliation for raising safety issues concerning the operation of the $12.3 billion plant. Bechtel holds the Department of Energy contract to build the plant and URS is its primary subcontractor.

She had filed a new claim with the Department of Labor three months ago, saying retaliation had continued and increased while her initial complaint was being considered.

"Today's decision to fire yet another Hanford whistleblower shows that nothing has changed at the Energy Department when it comes to stifling dissent," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in a statement.

He will ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate not only the pattern of contractor retaliation against whistleblowers at Hanford, but also DOE's lack of response to these actions, he said.

Busche, who led work to verify that the plant's design will result in safe operation of the plant, has raised concerns similar to Walter Tamosaitis'. He is the former research and technology manager at the vitrification plant.

Construction at key parts of the plant have been stopped until technical issues are addressed.

Tamosaitis was removed from the project in 2010 and then laid off by URS in October 2013 while he had appeals pending in whistleblower cases.

Busche has said in legal documents that beginning in 2010 she "was viewed as a roadblock to meeting deadlines, rather than a valuable check against noncompliance, and managers sought ways to retaliate and to circumvent her efficiency."

She was told Tuesday morning that her conduct was unprofessional and she was being fired for cause before being escorted from URS offices, she said. No documentation of issues was given to her, she said.

Her firing was not entirely a surprise, she said. Busche is among the key personnel on the vit plant project, and Bechtel had sent a letter to DOE requesting approval for changes in key personnel, she said. Bechtel has declined to discuss proposed changes with the Herald.

Busche faced increased hostility on the job leading up to a federal court hearing last week, she said. At the hearing a judge partially granted her motion to halt the case as her new allegations of retaliation move through the legal process. Bechtel and URS have asked that the new allegations be dismissed.

"The next day was just flat ugly," she said.

URS issued a statement Tuesday saying that it encourages its employees to raise concerns about safety and that it has an excellent track record of safely operating nuclear facilities.

Although the company supports Busche's right to raise concerns, it disagrees that she suffered retaliation or was treated unfairly, the statement said. She was fired for issues "unrelated to her purported concerns," it said.

Her allegations will not withstand scrutiny and the legal process will show that URS and its managers have complied with the law, the statement said.

Bechtel and URS also have vigorously denied that Tamosaitis was removed from the project for raising safety concerns.

DOE said it was not told that Busche had been fired until after it had happened.

"The department was not asked to and did not approve this action," it said in a statement.

The Bechtel contract specifies that no "diversion or substitution" of key personnel may be made without the prior written consent of DOE, but does not specifically address whether a key employee may be fired without DOE consent.

"When DOE sits back and allows its contractors to systematically remove whistleblowers, it is clear that DOE is part of the problem, despite all of the rhetoric to the contrary," Wyden said. "I plan to personally hold accountable DOE officials for the unchecked retaliation against whistleblowers who have revealed major, legitimate risks to public safety."

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

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