Congressman Markey Demands Answers from Energy Secretary Chu
December 1, 2011 - 2 Comments
Congressman Edward Markey of the Seventh District of Massachusetts condemned what he viewed as inaction and mismanagement on the part of the Department of Energy (“DOE”) in a letter marking another escalation in the case of a troubled nuclear waste treatment plant in Washington state. The Hanford Nuclear Site’s Waste Treatment Plant (“WTP”), described by Congressman Markey as the “largest and most expensive environmental remediation effort” in the United States, has been plagued in recent weeks by allegations of unsafe practices and whistleblower retaliation. Congressman Markey’s letter marks another blow not just to DOE, but also to Bechtel Corporation and URS Corporation, the two contractors the DOE has hired to head the construction of the plant.
In his letter, Congressman Markey described a list of problems at the WTP starting over five years ago. In March 2006, an external team of more than 50 experts reviewed the WTP, finding 17 existing and 11 potential technical challenges facing the plant. Bechtel and URS were given until June 30, 2010 to resolve the issues detailed by the experts. In their rush to resolve these design issues – at least ostensibly – they ignored the repeated concerns of Dr. Walt Tamosaitis, formerly the Manager for Research and Technology at the plant. As Markey wrote, “after Dr. Tamosaitis persisted in raising his concerns by presenting a list of 50 technical concerns to Bechtel and URS managers, he was removed from his managerial position and assigned to sit in a basement office doing essentially nothing.” He was later fired. Emails from that period “indicate that both Ines Triay, then-Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management at DOE, and Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman had been brief on the matter and ‘understand the reasons for Walt’s departure,’ ‘support’ Bechtel management, but that ‘DOE can’t be seen as involved.’”
In June, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (“DNFSB”), a government agency with the responsibility of providing recommendations and advice to the President and the Secretary of Energy regarding public health and safety issues at DOE defense nuclear facilities, released a report on the WTP project. The Board stated that the “DOE and contractor project management behaviors reinforce a subculture at WTP that deters the timely reporting, acknowledgement, and ultimately resolution of technical safety concerns … individuals who question current practices or provide alternative points of view are not considered team players and will be dealt with harshly … the WTP project is not maintaining a safety conscious work environment where personnel feel free to raise safety concerns without fear of retaliation, intimidation, harassment, or discrimination.”
Dr. Tamosaitis, who we have written about in the past, is not the only one to blow the whistle on the WTP. We have also written about Donna Busche, manager of environmental health and safety at the WTP plant, who recently filed suit claiming she too had been retaliated against for raising safety concerns. In addition, yet another senior DOE scientist, Dr. Donald Alexander, alleges that Bechtel management pressured him to sign a document stating that important safety issues were resolved, against his beliefs.
As of yet, the DOE appears to have done next to nothing in response to these findings and accusations. The Department has reportedly claimed that it disagrees with the DNFSB’s conclusions, but refuses to respond to them unless they are granted access to all of the Board’s investigative files, flying in the face of the Board’s “long-standing practice of keeping such files confidential so as to preserve the trust of past, current and future whistleblowers.” We commend Congressman Markey for his efforts advocating on behalf of the WTP whistleblowers, and for attempting to hold the DOE accountable for passively condoning the illegal retaliatory behavior being engaged in by Bechtel and URS. This is a fascinating case involving what could well be a fantastic breach of the public trust to the tune of billions of dollars, and it is imperative that those citizens brave enough to speak out against unsafe practices are protected by their government.