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Project on Government Oversight

POGO letter to Glenn Podonsky, DOE Chief Health, Safety, and Security Officer, regarding beryllium

Glenn Podonsky
Chief Health, Safety and Security Officer
Office of Health, Safety, and Security (HSS)
Department of Energy

Dear Mr. Podonsky:

Thank you for continuing to dialogue with POGO on our shared concerns about improving safety and security within the nuclear weapons complex. We appreciate you asking that we bring to your attention any potential weaknesses in HSS' functioning and its staff that can be strengthened.

Per your recommendation, we are writing to share our concerns about HSS' enforcement, policy, and oversight of beryllium exposure prevention policies at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which are designed to prevent Lab workers' exposure to beryllium and development of the incurable and potentially fatal lung disease, chronic beryllium disease. Such problems may highlight beryllium risks at other facilities in the complex, as well as the kind of enforcement challenges faced by HSS that the GAO recently reported in Department of Energy Needs to Strengthen Its Independent Oversight of Nuclear Facilities and Operations. 

Background

Recently, an ORNL employee came to POGO with evidence that ORNL is not in compliance with its beryllium contamination plan that was born out of Beryllium Controls at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (IG-737), a damning 2006 DOE Inspector General (IG) report that found that ORNL "did not properly manage activities relating to beryllium contamination."

The employee charges that ORNL is still not properly labeling equipment and not properly establishing access controls to buildings which contain beryllium (which were two of the four corrective actions suggested in the IG report). Specifically in August of 2008, the individual spotted a forklift in a non-beryllium area at ORNL that came from a beryllium-contaminated area. The employee confirmed it was the same forklift by its appearance as well as by its vehicle number, and that:

  • The forklift did not contain a sticker to say that it was decontaminated (as is required per the ORNL decontamination manual). It did however, have a sticker that states "Danger. Contaminated with Beryllium." It is against federal law if the forklift has not been decontaminated and moved into a non-beryllium area.[1] 

  • ORNL's internal property inventory detail (eProp) sheet for the forklift did not show that it ever left the contaminated building or was transferred to anyone else, nor indicate it was contaminated.

The forklift has since been removed from the area. However, the employee has photos of the forklift in the non-beryllium area.

When this employee reported to HSS the reoccurrence of the problems that the IG identified in 2006 and the appearance of the forklift in the non-beryllium area, he was rebuffed. (See attached: Email exchange ending August 22, 2008) A few questions:

  • Did HSS look into this matter? If yes, can you share with us the results of this review? If no, why not? What fines and penalties were levied?

  • If UT-Battelle did not fully comply with the recommendations of IG-737 is it the jurisdiction of HSS or is it an issue for IG?

Next Steps

An investigation into this matter should be instigated in order to determine whether anyone is being exposed to beryllium as a result of the forklift and any other possible beryllium-contaminated equipment. HSS has this power: "DOE Enforcement Officers have the right to enter work areas without delay to the extent practicable, to conduct inspections under this subpart."[2]  The following questions should be answered in any investigation:

  • Was the forklift ever decontaminated?

  • What were the results of the decontamination efforts?

  • How did the forklift get into a non-beryllium area?

  • Should anyone be held accountable?

  • In what ways is ORNL's labeling system not working?

  • Are ORNL's beryllium-contaminated areas and equipment secured and effectively safeguarded?

  • What is the state of worker education and beryllium-related training for its employees?[3]  It seems to be inadequate as this forklift with a contaminated sticker is floating around and nobody else has raised concerns about working with a contaminated piece of equipment.

  • What is the status of ORNL's "periodic analyses and assessments of monitoring activities, hazards, medical surveillance, exposure reduction, and minimization, and occurrence, reporting data"?[4] 

  • What fines and penalties are appropriate?

HSS should also play a role in ensuring that the IG's corrective actions were carried out, and that there is continued compliance. We understand that ORNL has completed only three (of the four) corrective actions (Page 9 of IG-737).  Since it has been two years since the report was released, at what point does HSS express a more strenuous request to ensure that all of the corrective actions be completed? 

Furthermore, HSS should determine whether UT-Battelle has produced any substantive changes to their procedures or their methodology as a result of the corrective actions. 

Your attention to this matter may not only bring to the surface any problems with beryllium prevention at the Labs, but also it may bring to light for you any weaknesses within HSS regarding how to work with whistleblowers.

We have taken care to redact the name of the individual who brought these concerns to our attention. We know that your office understands the importance of preserving the anonymity of those who blow the whistle, especially those who have experienced retaliation in the past at their workplace, and will take similar care. 

We appreciate your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Danielle Brian
Executive Director 


Attachment: Email exchange ending August 22, 2008

1. See: CFR 10 § 850.31 "Release criteria": (a) The responsible employer must clean beryllium-contaminated equipment and other items to the lowest contamination level practicable, but not to exceed the levels established in paragraphs (b) and (c) of this section, and label the equipment or other items, before releasing them to the general public or a DOE facility for non-beryllium use, or to another facility for work involving beryllium

2. http://law.justia.com/us/cfr/title10/10-4.0.2.5.30.5.88.1.html

3. See: CFR 10 § 850.37 - Training and counseling: http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/cfr_2007/janqtr/pdf/10cfr850.38.pdf

4. See: CFR 10 § 850.40 - Performance feedback

 

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