A former environmental specialist for Washington River Protection Solutions scored a victory this week when her former employer was ordered to rehire her and pay her more than $220,000.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Wednesday that the Hanford tank farm contractor violated federal whistleblower provisions when it fired Shelly Doss of Burbank in October 2011 after she repeatedly reported nuclear and environmental safety and permit and record-keeping violations.
"I'm happy OSHA has been able to vindicate me and that I can get a chance to go back," Doss told the Herald Wednesday.
Washington River Protection Solutions can appeal the decision to an administrative law judge within 30 days. The company said in a statement that it is currently reviewing the order, which officials received Tuesday.
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"No decision has been made as to whether Washington River Protection Solutions will request a hearing on the matter before an administrative law judge," the company said in a statement to the Herald.
Washington River Protection Solutions, with more than 1,600 employees at Hanford, is responsible for safely managing about 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive and chemical waste stored in 177 underground tanks at Hanford. The waste is left over from plutonium produced at Hanford from 1943 until about 1987.
The contractor said Doss was among more than 200 employees who were laid off in the fall of 2011 to align staffing with current work and federal funding.
"The employee's raising of safety or environmental questions was not a factor in the selection for layoff," the company said.
OSHA investigators disagree.
Only two of the company's 25 environmental specialists were laid off, according to the order. Those layoffs were supposed to be based on performance, but Steve Gossman, the assistant regional administrator for federal state operations, concluded that Doss should have been ranked in at least the top half of employees, and probably the top 25 percent.
OSHA does not release names of employees in whistleblower complaints. Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based Hanford watchdog and worker advocacy group, named Doss in a press release Wednesday and provided copies of her complaint and Gossman's order. Doss is represented by a Hanford Challenge attorney.
Gossman asserted Doss was fired because her vacant position was filled, and when Washington River Protection Solutions began to rehire environmental specialists, Doss was not notified or rehired when she applied for an open position in 2012, according to federal investigators.
"There is sufficient evidence to show that (Doss) was blacklisted," Gossman wrote.
Doss began working at Hanford in 1988 in radiation protection and for Washington River Protection Solutions in 2008. Her job was to make sure the contractor followed permit requirements and federal and state regulations, she said. She also negotiated with regulators and brought issues to the attention of company management so they could be addressed.
"I wasn't trying to get the company in trouble when I was finding these things," Doss said.
Doss had filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint in 2009 for similar issues. But she said it wasn't long after she and the contractor settled her first whistleblower complaint through the Hanford Concerns Council in February 2010 that she started experiencing retaliation.
"They did not want someone like me out there, they made that pretty obvious," Doss said.
Specifically, Doss noticed that one of the company's compliance managers hadn't included new water basins in the state wastewater discharge permits. When she raised the concern with the manager, he refused to make the change, so she notified her supervisor and manager, according to her complaint.
She also notified managers that employees weren't entering events in the environmental on-call logbook, which the company is required to keep.
Once Doss started overseeing underground injection control well compliance, she discovered that the actual location of 95 percent of the 50 or more wells couldn't be determined. When she notified her boss, she was told to find the wells, which transfer wastewater from the site into the soil, according to the complaint. She could not find them after several months.
Doss also discovered and then reported in June 2011 that another manager failed to notify the state Department of Health when sending equipment -- emissions units -- for disposal as required, according to her complaint. She notified her manager, the Department of Energy and the Department of Health.
"The evidence supports that every time (Doss) voiced an environmental or nuclear safety concern, (the company) took her off of that project until she hardly had any work assignments left," Gossman wrote.
Managers expressed hostility about Doss and the protected whistleblower acts when interviewed by federal investigators and portrayed her as "an annoying and bothersome employee," Gossman wrote.
But, "There was no documentation or evidence of any progressive discipline that would have supported (the managers') portrayal of (Doss) as a problem employee other than the counseling about email communication just before (she) was fired," he wrote.
OSHA has ordered Washington River Protection Solutions to rehire Doss with the same pay and benefits as if she had continued to work for the company and to pay her $186,000 in lost pay and interest.
Punitive damages were awarded because the contractor was aware of the settlement of Doss' first complaint, which said the company would not retaliate against her, according to the order.
"It appears that (the contractor) was not serious about settling the first whistleblower complaint and treated (Doss') protected activities with a callous disregard when her employment was terminated and when she was denied a subsequent employment opportunity," Gossman wrote.
Doss was awarded $20,000 for emotional distress, about $4,400 for expenses, $10,000 for "callous disregard of (Doss') protected rights," and attorney fees, according to the order.
Washington River Protection Solutions also must remove disciplinary information from her personnel record and provide whistleblower rights information to its employees, according to the order.
Doss was unable to find a job after she was fired three years ago, she said. She finished a bachelor's of science degree focusing on her interest in environmental compliance in June.
She's nervous about going back to work but she hopes to get the chance, she said. She also wouldn't do anything differently.
"All you have is your morality and your integrity in the end," she said.
-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org
Complaint not a first for URS Corp.
Washington River Protection Solutions is owned by URS Corp. and Energy Solutions. URS has been the target of at least two other whistleblower complaints.
Donna Busche, former manager of environmental and nuclear safety at the Hanford vitrification plant, and Walter Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager at the plant, have alleged they were retaliated against and then fired after raising concerns about safety.
The lawsuits against Bechtel have either been voluntarily withdrawn or dismissed by the court. Tamosaitis' appeal against URS is active and being considered by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Editor's note: Corrected to clarify state of Tamosaitis' appeal.