Richland — The main Hanford vitrification plant subcontractor is considering asking the federal government to reimburse it for $650,000 reportedly spent to testify at a Senate subcommittee hearing in March, according to a letter from a U.S. senator.
Sen. Claire McCaskill's letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz also questioned payments for legal cases brought by two Hanford vitrification plant whistleblowers and whether employee nondisclosure agreements prevent workers from reporting concerns.
Bechtel National is the contractor for the $12.3 billion vitrification plant being built to treat radioactive waste at Hanford, and URS Corp is its main subcontractor.
"I would like to know whether DOE regularly reimburses contractors for costs associated with responding to congressional requests and preparing for hearings and whether the department would reimburse URS for its expenses associated with the subcommittee's requests and hearings," McCaskill said in the letter.
URS initially said in a response for the hearing record that it intended to ask to be repaid for expenses of more than $650,000, including lawyer fees that effectively would be almost $1,300 an hour, according to McCaskill's letter.
But after the subcommittee told URS that the response would be included in McCaskill's letter to Moniz, URS updated its response to say it had not decided whether it would ask to be reimbursed, according to the letter.
Bechtel did not seek reimbursement for its expenses.
URS declined to comment Friday on the reimbursement or on other issues raised in the letter.
McCaskill, D-Mo., chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, has repeatedly looked into Hanford vitrification plant issues since 2011. The March subcommittee hearing focused on alleged whistleblower retaliation.
DOE has reimbursed Bechtel $500,000 and URS $3 million for their costs of defending against lawsuits and other legal whistleblower claims brought by two former vitrification plant employees, McCaskill said in the letter.
"I would like to understand the criteria used by the contracting officer to determine that this expenditure was allowable and reasonable," McCaskill told Moniz.
Reimbursing a contractor's legal costs for defending against whistleblower claims appears to contravene policies meant to protect whistleblowers from retaliation, she wrote in a previous letter to high-level DOE officials.
DOE pays contractor legal expenses on a case-by-case basis for cost-reimbursement contracts, DOE said in a statement Friday. The payments are provisional, it said.
If a determination is later made that the costs are not allowed by the contract, the contractor is required to return the money to DOE.
Bechtel has been "provisionally reimbursed" for a portion of it legal costs, as allowed by its DOE contract and federal regulations, Bechtel said in a statement Friday.
DOE uses the federal regulations to make decisions on reimbursement of expenses for legal cases, and decisions are then reviewed and audited after the legal matter is resolved, Bechtel said.
McCaskill's letter referred to cases brought by Walter Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager for the vitrification plant project, and Donna Busche, the former manager of environmental and nuclear safety on the project.
Both were URS employees before losing their jobs.
The lawsuits against Bechtel have either been voluntarily withdrawn or dismissed by the court, Bechtel said. Tamosaitis lost an appeal this week on a lawsuit against Bechtel, but said he plans to file another appeal.
DOE has not made a final decision on whether Bechtel's expenses are allowable, said Bechtel officials.
McCaskill also used her letter to ask how DOE determined that Bechtel and URS nondisclosure agreements do not impact whistleblower rights. They prohibit the disclosure of confidential information outside the companies without authorization.
The agreements, which are a condition of employment, may have a chilling effect on workers reporting safety and environmental concerns, McCaskill said. The agreements provide no exception for whistleblowers, she said.
"Nothing in our nondisclosure agreements prevents or inhibits any employee from raising a concern," Bechtel said. "We expect and encourage employees to raise safety and quality concerns."
The questions she raised in the letter were provided to DOE on March 26, about two weeks after the subcommittee hearing, but she has had no response, she said.
She requested a briefing to subcommittee staff by July 11.
-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; email@example.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews