DOE asks inspector general to investigate Hanford firing

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMarch 11, 2014 

Vit plant Hanford

Rebar and concrete walls are installed last fall at the top of the High-Level Waste Facility at the Hanford vitrification plant.

COURTESY BECHTEL NATIONAL

The Department of Energy has asked its independent Office of Inspector General to investigate the firing of Hanford whistleblower Donna Busche.

DOE was not asked to and did not approve her termination, said Matthew Moury, deputy assistant secretary of safety, security and quality programs at the DOE Office of Environmental Management. He spoke at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight.

The two lead senators on the subcommittee questioned representatives of DOE, Bechtel National and URS Corp. about safety concerns and allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers at the Hanford vitrification plant under construction.

Busche has filed a federal lawsuit saying she was fired in February because she persisted in raising issues about the safe operation of the plant, including some of the same issues raised by Walter Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager for the project.

He was removed from the project in summer 2010, but continued to work for URS until he was laid off in October 2013 while he had appeals pending in related legal cases.

If the Office of Inspector General concludes that Busche was fired in retaliation for raising legal issues, DOE will take action, Moury said.

But Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairwoman of the subcommittee, seemed unimpressed.

"At some point in time (DOE) needs to do something besides ask for another report," she said.

DOE has investigated the safety culture at the vitrification plant and plans a follow-up investigation and has called in the inspector general, but money continues to flow to the contractors, costs keep escalating and performance bonuses keep being awarded, she said.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz issued a memo calling for a strong safety culture just two weeks before Tamosaitis and a few months before Busche was fired, McCaskill said.

"Are these the actions of a contractor who welcomes whistleblowers?" she asked.

Moury answered, "We have made it very clear to contractors that reprisal against whistleblowers or people raising issues is totally unacceptable."

McCaskill keyed in on a DOE policy of reimbursing contractors for legal costs of fighting whistleblowers, unless they lose cases. That allows contractors, with private attorneys paid by the hour, to drag out litigation at no cost to themselves until in some cases whistleblowers can no longer afford to fight and cases are settled.

However, Moury said that a contracting officer determined whether full or partial legal costs of contractors would be reimbursed.

Many questions went unanswered, with witnesses saying they would need to determine the answers and submit them later.

Those included the amount the federal government is reimbursing contractors for fighting whistleblower lawsuits and the list of issues raised by whistleblowers and their resolution or proposed resolution.

Bechtel National, which has the DOE contract to build the vitrification plant, and URS, its subcontractor, have been asked to compile a list of all concerns raised by Tamosaitis and Busche, Moury said. Many of those issues also have been raised by others, he said. Once the list is complete, it will be evaluated on technical merit, he said.

McCaskill said she believed contractors could not fire Busche or any other key official named in the contract without DOE approval.

But Michael Graham, principal vice president for Bechtel National, said employees could be fired for cause without DOE approval.

James Taylor, general manager for the URS division working on the vit plant, said Busche was fired after an individual raised concerns about her conduct and behavior that were "severe."

Bechtel and URS have strongly denied that they retaliated against Tamosaitis and Busche, entering statements into the record.

URS sent out a statement after the hearing saying that while it fully supports the right of Tamosaitis and Busche to express their views, it strongly disagrees with their assertions.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the ranking Republican on the committee, said contractors needed to have clearly understood processes for employees raising concerns and differing opinions.

Tamosaitis and Busche had expected also to testify before the committee, but they were proposed as witnesses too late, according to Johnson's staff. However, Johnson would be willing to hold another hearing with them, his press secretary said.

They instead participated Tuesday in a roundtable before the hearing, with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, joining the discussion.

The public and senators learned of serious Hanford matters only because courageous, committed employees like Tamosaitis came forward, Wyden said.

Among ideas discussed at the roundtable were giving the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board some oversight authority at Hanford and beefing up the technical staffing of DOE so it was less reliant on contractor technical staff. McCaskill brought up both proposals at the hearing that followed.

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

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