A key Hanford vitrification plant manager, Donna Busche, has filed a whistleblower lawsuit in federal court against contractor Bechtel National and subcontractor URS Energy and Construction.
Busche claims that URS and Bechtel are working to fire her in retaliation for raising safety issues concerning the operation of the $12.3 billion plant being built by Bechtel for the Department of Energy. A URS employee, she is the manager of environmental and nuclear safety for the project.
Bechtel and URS have reviewed the legal complaint and found no merit in it, said Frank Russo, Bechtel project director, in a message Wednesday to employees.
"We intend to defend ourselves against the allegations," he said. "Ms. Busche has not been subjected to retaliation, nor will we tolerate retaliation or harassment in any form against anyone who raises a concern."
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Busche filed a whistleblower complaint with the Department of Labor in November 2011. But with no decision from the agency after a year, the federal Energy Reorganization Act allowed her to file the case in Eastern Washington District U.S. Court.
Since Busche filed the Department of Labor complaint, Bechtel has reorganized and reduced her authority by adding layers between her and other key project organizations, said her attorney, John Sheridan of Seattle, in the lawsuit.
Bechtel sought, but failed, to have her removed as one of the key personnel listed in its contract with DOE, the lawsuit said. She no longer is considered a senior manager for URS, and Bechtel and URS systematically have isolated her from vitrification plant project meetings and stripped her of authority to make decisions, the lawsuit said.
Busche had a good relationship with Hanford management from March 2009 to early 2010, even though her job is to say "no" if designs do not show the plant will be operated safely, the lawsuit said.
But "beginning in 2010, the company's focus moved away from nuclear and environmental safety compliance and toward meeting deadlines regardless of the quality of the work," the lawsuit said.
URS and Bechtel management sought ways to circumvent her effectiveness, the lawsuit said.
One Bechtel manager claimed she was in her position illegally and tried to prevent her from hiring a deputy, the lawsuit said, and a URS manager refused to implement some of Busche's safety instructions concerning an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.
In October 2010, Busche asked Russo for authority to do her job because she was constantly being undermined, but no changes occurred, the lawsuit said.
Busche testified at a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board hearing in October 2010, contradicting the position of DOE, URS and Bechtel on calculations to determine public exposure to radiation if there was an accident at the vitrification plant, the lawsuit said.
For her testimony, she was admonished in front of other employees by Ines Triay, DOE assistant secretary for environmental management, the lawsuit said. Top URS managers asked her whether she could "provide a different answer" to questions on the second day of the hearing, the lawsuit said.
In October 2011, she was given a corrective action letter by URS after an investigation that falsely alleged she had misused employees for activities not related to work and had not behaved in a civil manner, the lawsuit said.
The letter was intended to intimidate Busche and to raise questions concerning her technical credibility, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit claims the alleged discrimination has damaged Busche's reputation in the community and in the nuclear industry, and that she will lose income and professional opportunities.
There also has been a chilling effect on the willingness of vitrification project workers to raise safety and engineering concerns that could impact the cost and schedule of the plant and threaten profits of Bechtel and URS, the lawsuit said.
Russo, in his message Wednesday to employees, said, "We owe it to our work force to ensure inaccurate public statements about the project do not go unchallenged."
The vitrification plant project has a transparent process that requires employees to raise issues they believe merit greater attention, said Bechtel spokesman Todd Nelson.
"We take these concerns seriously and evaluate and address each one," Nelson said. "We do not tolerate retaliation or harassment in any form against anyone who raises a concern."
Busche isn't the only key vitrification plant manager to file a whistleblower lawsuit in federal court. Walt Tamosaitis' claims against URS and DOE were dismissed in 2012, but he is appealing.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews