The company building the Hanford vitrification plant is defending itself in federal court against two former employers who said they lost their jobs after raising concerns about the plant’s safety.
Bechtel National holds the Department of Energy contract to build and start up the $17 billion plant to turn about 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal.
The waste is left from the past production of plutonium at the nuclear reservation for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
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In the first case, former vitrification plant employee Curtis Hall is making his second retaliation complaint against Bechtel.
In 2005 he was employed as a controls and instrumentation engineer at the vitrification plant when he lost his job. He said it was in retaliation for raising safety issues.
The Department of Energy Office Of Hearings and Appeals Decisions ordered him reinstated in late 2008.
He worked for Bechtel until November 2017, when he claims in new federal court documents he again lost his job in retaliation for raising safety issues.
The plant is not yet operating, but engineering, construction and materials quality could affect its ability to safely operate.
Hall said he has raised numerous issues with various levels of managers and other engineers in 2016 and 2017.
His concerns included reduced standards for fire service water.
He claimed that a major earthquake could lead to a fire at the plant and that a robust system would be needed to supply water and allow operators to remain at controls to safely shutdown operations, if necessary.
He also complained that some training was insufficient for controls and instrumentation work, and errors had been made that could contribute to a nuclear accident.
Staffing on the vitrification plant project was inadequate to meet quality standards, he told management, according to court documents.
He also said that potentially faulty or substandard software and electrical and instrumentation and control equipment were being installed.
Hall said that he was placed on leave Sept. 27, 2017, and told he was not meeting performance expectations, then laid off on Nov. 15, 2017.
“Mr. Hall raised questions as part of his day-to-day engineering work, as we expect all employees to do,” said Bechtel spokesman George Rangel.
“We addressed all of his questions and issues through standard processes, including the project’s well-established corrective action management program process to ensure the plant meets safety and quality standards,” Rangel said.
Raising issues had nothing to do with Hall’s layoff, according to Bechtel.
Bechtel’s attorneys said in court documents that the issues Hall raised were ones that had previously been raised, investigated and addressed.
They alleged that Hall raised the issues to deflect attention from his own performance shortcomings and his unwillingness to correct them. Hall had been placed on three performance improvement plans, Bechtel attorneys said.
Hall is asking for his job back, lost pay and damage to his reputation and humiliation.
▪ The other case against Bechtel in federal court was filed by millwright Walter Ford. AECOM, Bechtel’s primary subcontractor, also is named in the lawsuit.
The Department of Labor said in a ruling made in 2015 that his role as a whistleblower in his 35 years at Hanford contributed to a decision to lay him off in November 2011.
“In 2011 and 2012, Bechtel National laid off a significant percentage of the craft workforce in a a project-wide rolling layoff when construction was suspended on the Pretreatment Facility and most of the High Level Waste Facility,” Rangel said. “Mr. Ford was among those laid off.”
However, the Department of Labor found in 2015 that Ford “was scrutinized and treated more harshly than other employees.”
It did not require that Ford be given his job back, but ordered back wages, attorney fees and $25,000 be paid to Ford.
Bechtel objected to the ruling and a hearing was scheduled in March 2016 before a Department of Labor administrative law judge. But the judge left his job at the Department of Labor before he ruled on the issue.
Rather than go through another Department of Labor hearing, Ford chose to file his case in federal court in 2018, said attorney Nikolas Peterson, of Hanford Challenge.
Ford filed safety concerns when he worked for former Hanford contractor Fluor Hanford at the K Basin spent fuel project in the early 2000s and testified for his supervisor in an investigation.
The investigation found in favor who was laid off after challenging a decision to operate a crane moving radioactive spent fuel despite a warning that its brakes might be faulty.
At the vitrification plant, Ford reported incidents, including a worker who tried to eject another employee from a golf cart, injuring her, according to court documents.
He reported another “horseplay” incident in which the same worker dropped a large brass hook 30 feet to land beside an employee, according to court documents.
When he refused to skip steps outlined in detailed, written plans for specific work, an increasingly hostile manager brought in other workers for the assignments, according to court documents.
Ford is asking for his job back, lost wages and an award of at least $500,000 for emotional distress. He also wants an end to “the hostile working environment.”
AECOM said in court documents that it took no actions that were discriminatory or retaliatory.
“We are confident that a full review of the evidence will demonstrate that we carried out the layoff properly and followed all relevant labor regulations,” Rangel said.
Bechtel takes all employees’ questions and issues seriously and has a zero-tolerance policy for workplace retaliation or discrimination, he said.
Workers are encouraged to identify potential issues, which are tracked and resolved through established policies to make sure the plant meets safety and quality standards, he said.