Hanford subcontractor, DOE being sued by former vit plant executive

The Department of Energy and Hanford subcontractor URS were sued Wednesday in federal court by former Hanford vitrification plant executive Walter Tamosaitis.

Tamosaitis has alleged since summer 2010 that he was removed from the $12.2 billion project for raising concerns about the safe operation of the plant, which will process high-level radioactive waste for disposal starting in 2019.

Bechtel National, which holds the DOE contract for the project, denies that.

The lawsuit asks for no money from the federal government but asks that DOE do the right thing, said Tamosaitis' attorney, Jack Sheridan of Seattle.

It asks that Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager at the vitrification plant, be reinstated to a leadership position.

It wants a federal judge to order DOE not to pressure employees or contractors to take positions not based on scientific principles. Tamosaitis has alleged that money and deadlines trumped safety on some vit plant decisions.

The lawsuit asks that DOE be ordered to develop a plan to ensure DOE managers balance the need to meet deadlines with sound science and to develop procedures to include in contracts to prevent employees from being pressured to take positions not based on scientific principles.

"Scientists and engineers must be free to state their professional positions without fear of retaliation, and without pressure to speak in one voice," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also asks that DOE be required to only put DOE employees in positions with administrative oversight, rather than hiring contractor employees to administer projects. At the vit plant, Dale Knudson, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory employee on loan to DOE as allowed by federal law, is the federal project manager.

That creates a conflict of interest because a contractor employee may not place the public interest before profit when placed in a temporary position, the lawsuit alleges.

DOE is committed to completing the vitrification plant safely and meeting its obligations to the Hanford community and the state of Washington, but cannot comment specifically on ongoing litigation, said Jen Stutsman, DOE spokeswoman.

Tamosaitis is asking for monetary damages from URS, a Bechtel subcontractor on the vitrification plant project and Tamosaitis' employer. URS declined to comment. Tamosaitis also has filed a separate lawsuit against Bechtel in Benton County Superior Court.

On July 2, 2010, Tamosaitis was dismissed from the vitrification plant project and escorted from a vit plant office building. He continues to work for URS, but in a basement office in Richland shared with a copy machine.

Knudson indicated in a previous legal proceeding that he did not direct Bechtel or URS to take any specific action with regard to Tamosaitis. But the lawsuit against DOE disagrees, alleging that Knudson, the DOE project director, was directly involved in the decision to remove Tamosaitis from the project.

The lawsuit also claims that URS had worked out a deal with Tamosaitis to return him to work at the vitrification plant. But then Knudson participated in overturning that decision after hearing Tamosaitis was a whistleblower, the lawsuit alleges.

DOE is prohibited from retaliating against Hanford contractor whistleblowers and required to protect them from retaliation, according to the lawsuit.

Tamosaitis joined the vitrification plant in 2003 on a temporary assignment without moving his family to the Tri-Cities. He agreed to make the assignment permanent in 2006 when he was promised by URS that he could stay at the Hanford project until he "retired or died," according to the lawsuit.

However, Bechtel has said that plans were in the works in 2010 to find a new assignment for Tamosaitis because technical issues at the plant were being resolved and fewer people were needed to work on them. It is routine for high-level corporate officials to be relocated to corporate offices until another assignment is available, according to Bechtel.

Bechtel faced a June 30, 2010, deadline to resolve high-level radioactive waste mixing issues at the plant. If waste is not kept well mixed, hydrogen gases could build up and explode or enough plutonium could accumulate in the bottom of the tanks to cause a criticality.

If Bechtel did not meet that deadline, it would lose much of the $6 million in pay for meeting the deadline, according to the lawsuit. In addition, Bechtel was concerned that if the mixing issue was not declared resolved by then, Congress would reduce proposed money to build the plant by $50 million, the lawsuit said.

"Congress is just looking for a reason to put Hanford money in other states," the lawsuit said Bechtel project manager Frank Russo wrote in an email. "Our $50 million is still in play. Declare failure (of the mixing issue) and our $50 mil goes away."

In about February 2010, Bechtel proposed using an alternate approach to scale up testing of the speed of the mixers to meet what was allowed by the current design, the lawsuit said. An external consultant on the issue called the scaling approach "criminally negligent," the lawsuit said.

About the same time, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory raised questions about whether the waste simulant being used in testing adequately represented the actual waste, according to the lawsuit.

Bechtel also became frustrated that PNNL would not sign onto a report that the mixing issue could be closed without further testing, the lawsuit alleged.

"After over $200 million (paid to) PNNL and Battelle they damn well better be on board," Russo told DOE, according to the lawsuit.

Tamosaitis was removed from the project through a decision by DOE, URS and Bechtel for two reasons, the lawsuit claimed.

He submitted a list of 50 open technical issues at a meeting June 30. Others also raised issues, but not as many and few that dealt directly with process issues, such as the issues on Tamosaitis' list, according to the lawsuit.

Tamosaitis also sent an email to consultants, hoping they might publicly raise objections to closing the mixing issue because Tamosaitis feared he might be fired if he directly criticized efforts to close the issue, the lawsuit said.

DOE and a consultant who did not oppose closure were insulted by what Bechtel has called Tamosaitis' "very derogatory" email.

Bechtel also has said in other legal filings that the issues on Tamosaitis' list already were known and the only one requiring attention was not related to the mixing issue.

Tamosaitis' motivations in 2010 were focused on maximizing his own bonus for resolving the mixing issue and on finding a new Hanford position with URS, according to a Bechtel legal document. It also accused Tamosaitis of "petty insubordination" and a "lack of engagement."

Tamosaitis's attorney said Wednesday that Tamosaitis was "a company man" and was trying to make sure the mixing issue was resolved.

A large-scale test is planned by DOE and Bechtel to provide more information about mixing within the vitrification plant.

Tamosaitis had filed a claim with the Department of Labor more than a year ago. But federal law allows cases to be moved to federal court if the Department of Labor does not take action within a year.