KENNEWICK — Bechtel National was concerned it would lose performance pay if it continued to address issues related to safe and efficient operation of the Hanford vitrification plant, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in Benton County Superior Court.
Walt Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager for the $12.3 billion Waste Treatment Plant, is claiming that he was fired from the project after he persisted in raising questions about the operations of the plant.
He is asking for lost pay and compensation for humiliation and damage to his reputation. Defendants include Bechtel National, the Department of Energy contractor for designing, building and commissioning the plant; URS, Bechtel's prime subcontractor; and five Bechtel and URS officials, including vit plant manager Frank Russo and assistant project manager Bill Gay.
Tamosaitis was removed from the project without notice two days after Bechtel said it had resolved the last of 28 technical issues raised by an expert panel in 2006. The final issue, dubbed the M3 mixing issue, concerned keeping high level radioactive waste well mixed within tanks.
"If M3 doesn't close, I'll be selling Amway in Tijuana," the lawsuit quotes Gay as saying. Between February and June 2010, he repeatedly discussed the importance of closing the mixing issue and the negative impacts on careers and compensation it would have if it wasn't resolved, according to the lawsuit.
Russo made clear to staff in early 2010 that the mixing issue must be closed by June 30 and "implemented a plan to do the least possible work at the lowest expense" to meet the deadline despite concerns by some about safety and efficient plant operation, the lawsuit said.
DOE faced a legally binding deadline in a proposed consent decree related to the Tri-Party Agreement to have all 28 of the issues, including the mixing issue, closed by the end of June, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology. In addition Bechtel had told DOE it would have its report on closing out the issue done by the end of June.
If waste does not stay well mixed in certain tanks, solids could settle to the bottom of the tanks and plug pipes, and plutonium could collect in large enough quantities to cause a criticality.
The lawsuit claimed Bechtel faced the loss of $6 million to be split with URS, if it did not meet the June 30 deadline. But DOE said getting the mixing issue resolved was not an all-or-nothing issue for Bechtel's payment.
Although there does not appear to be payment tied directly to resolving the mixing issue by June 30, that date was the end of a six-month pay period for Bechtel and status of the mixing issue was one consideration in determining pay.
Bechtel employees were told Monday that Bechtel had earned slightly less than $4 million out of a possible $6.3 million for project management and cost performance over the first half of the year. DOE, like Bechtel, considers the mixing issue closed.
Despite the push to close the mixing issue in the first half of the year, Bechtel engineers identified many key design facts in the first three months of the year, the lawsuit said. They included limitations on the maximum mixer velocities, limitations in the pressure supply, unavailability of equipment and inadequate modeling methods, according to the lawsuit.
In May, an external consultant referred to one new approach that would produce data showing that mixing velocity would be adequate as "criminally negligent," the lawsuit said.
Tamosaitis suggested more testing was needed to resolve mixing issues, but "Bechtel did not want to address the mixing issue directly because of the design changes that would be needed as well as the reconstruction of vessels," the lawsuit said. That would have resulted in major cost increases and a delayed schedule and could have jeopardized Bechtel's pay, the lawsuit said.
Bechtel and URS declined to comment directly on the lawsuit after it was filed Monday, but have said previously that Tamosaitis was removed from the project because his work was completed. Bechtel has said a variety of experts have agreed with its technical approach to the mixing issue.
Tamosaitis continues to be employed by URS, but has been given no meaningful projects and has been assigned a basement office in Richland that also is used to house two copy machines, said his attorney, John Sheridan of Seattle. His ability to earn bonuses and promotions has been compromised and his reputation has been tainted, which will prevent him from using his 40 years of experience to do consulting work, Sheridan said.
A trial date could be set for next fall. Tamosaitis also has filed a Department of Labor complaint and multiple government investigations into his allegations are under way.
w Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricity herald.com