Hanford whistleblower who lost his job reaches settlement in lawsuit over safety concerns

A settlement has been reached in the case of a whistleblower who said he lost his job at the Hanford vitrification plant after raising safety concerns.

Millwright Walter Ford filed a lawsuit in federal court against Bechtel National, the contractor building the $17 billion plant and Aecom, its primary subcontractor.

The parties declined to talk about the settlement other than to say that all parties have reached a mutually satisfactory resolution of the case.

The settlement agreement was not included in documents filed in court.

The Department of Labor said in a ruling made in 2015 that Ford’s role as a whistleblower in his 35 years at the Hanford nuclear reservation contributed to a decision to lay him off in November 2011.

A decision was made about that time to stop construction on the vitrification plant’s Pretreatment Plant because of technical issues, leading to widespread layoffs across the project.

However, the Department of Labor found in 2015 that Ford “was scrutinized and treated more harshly than other employees.”

Construction remains stopped on the Hanford vitrification plant’s Pretreatment Facility while technical issues are addressed. Courtesy Bechtel National

It ordered that Ford be paid back wages, attorney fees and $25,000.

Bechtel objected. But before the issue was resolved, the administrative law judge who ruled left his job.

Rather than go through another Department of Labor hearing, Ford filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2018, said his attorney, Nikolas Peterson of Hanford Challenge, when the case was filed.

Whistleblower reported ‘horseplay’

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, which found in favor of the supervisor.

The supervisor had challenged 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 Ford 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 asked in the lawsuit for lost wages and at least $500,000 for emotional distress. He also wanted an end to “the hostile working environment.”

In court documents, Aecom said that care had been taken to prevent any discriminatory or retaliatory action and also pointed out that the layoff occurred before Aecom purchased URS. Ford said URS and Bechtel were his joint employers.

Bechtel also denied in court documents that it discriminated against Ford.

When the case was filed Bechtel told that Herald that it takes all employees’ questions and issues seriously and has a zero-tolerance policy for workplace retaliation or discrimination.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.