McCaskill Rebukes Hanford Contractors for Handling of Whistle-Blowers

Senator Claire McCaskill speaks to the press in July on Capitol Hill. The Missouri Democrat on Tuesday took government contractors to task for their treatment of two whistleblowers who aired concerns about the safety of a plant being built in Washington state to process nuclear-weapons waste.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
March 12, 2014, 10:27 a.m.

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.

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