A senior Senate Democrat on Tuesday took Hanford nuclear site contractors to task for their handling of recent whistleblower cases involving safety concerns.
Senator Claire McCaskill (Mo.) said she did not think it fair that taxpayers had to pick up some of the legal-defense costs for government contractors Bechtel National and URS Corp. in lawsuits brought by two former employees who were fired after sharing safety concerns about a new $12 billion nuclear-waste treatment plant under construction in Washington state.
"There is a real uneven playing field as it relates to having a case of this nature adjudicated," McCaskill said during a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on the treatment of whistleblowers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. "I know how expensive it can be to get to a court of law, especially if one side has a lot of resources and the other has zip."
Donna Busche was fired last month from her job as a senior safety manager for URS Corp., the main subcontractor to Bechtel on the project to build a one-of-a-kind vitrification plant. Busche alleges URS fired her as punishment for concerns that she began raising in 2011 regarding safety issues she felt were going unaddressed in the construction of the plant. The former manager has sued URS and Bechtel over her treatment.
The facility is intended to transform millions of gallons of Cold War-era nuclear-weapons waste into glass.
Walter Tamosaitis, formerly URS's project research and technical manager, was taken off the vitrification project in 2010 after giving his superiors a list of technical issues that could affect safety at the facility. He was laid off in 2013. Lawsuits he filed against URS, Bechtel and the Energy Department are currently in appeals.
McCaskill, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee's panel on contracting and financial oversight, noted that cases like those of Busche and Tamosaitis "go on for years," with "millions of dollars in legal costs." She contended that the government creates a problematic incentive structure when it reimburses contractors for their legal fees in defending themselves against accusations of whistleblower retaliation.
The Missouri lawmaker asked testifying URS and Bechtel company officials to provide the subcommittee with information on the amount of money they have been reimbursed in attorney fees related to Energy Department whistleblower cases.
Testifying before the panel, URS Senior Vice President for Global Management and Operations Services James Taylor said his company had "zero tolerance" for retaliation against whistleblowers. He defended the firing of Busche, who he said was terminated for unspecified "severe" conduct and behavior issues.
The Energy Department has asked its internal watchdog to probe the dismissal of Busche, the agency's deputy assistant secretary, Matt Moury, told the subcommittee. The department previously halted work on the waste-treatment plant while it examines the raised safety concerns.