On October 9, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey sent a letter to Ernest Moniz, Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), defending the rights of whistleblowers who faced retribution for reporting “severe safety and management challenges at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP).”
When Dr. Walt Tamosaitis, a DOE contractor employee, expressed concerns about mixing high-level nuclear waste in tanks, a process that he feared could lead to “a potential criticality or hydrogen explosion,” he was retaliated against, and eventually terminated. His employer, URS Corporation, is a contractor at DOE’s Hanford site, a nuclear complex. Senator Markey goes on to point out that Hanford has a history of problems. For instance, according to Markey’s letter, Hanford stores nuclear waste in “177 aging underground tanks, 70 of which have already leaked about 1 million gallons of waste into groundwater.”
Dr. Tamosaitis wasn’t alone in his concerns. For years, employees have reported safety violations and systemic corruption at the Hanford WTP. Senator Markey specifically identified Donna Busche as another URS employee who faced retaliation for her efforts to raise safety concerns at Hanford.
Senator Markey also cited emails, reports, and court documents corroborating that Dr. Tamosaitis had been retaliated against for reporting his concerns. In an email, one of Tamosaitis’s bosses wrote, “Walt is killing us.” A response simply said, “He will be gone tomorrow.” He was demoted and “assigned to sit in a basement office doing essentially nothing,” according to Markey’s letter.
In December 2011, Dr. Tamosaitis testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight at the request of Chairman Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Ranking Member Rob Portman (R-Ohio) about his experience and the need for stronger whistleblower protections for federal contractor employees. The Project On Government Oversight's Director of Public Policy, Angela Canterbury, also testified at that hearing and urged Congress to expand protections for whistleblowers like Dr. Tamosaitis. POGO strongly supported a bill sponsored by Chairman McCaskill that would have provided best practice protections and jury trials for whistleblowing related to contractors and grantees. Provisions from that bill were eventually included in the defense authorization bill as a four-year pilot program enacted in July this year.
However, it’s unclear whether those new protections will help Dr. Tamosaitis get his job back. “On October 2, Dr. Tamosaitis, a respected engineer who worked for URS Corporation for 44 years, was escorted to the door and told he will only receive the severance pay he is entitled to if he promises not to sue his employer for what can only be described as years of retaliation for his efforts to issue warnings related to the WTP’s dangerous flaws,” according to Markey’s letter.
In an internal memo last month, DOE’s Secretary and Deputy Secretary highlighted the importance of “an atmosphere that promotes a questioning attitude with effective resolution of reported problems.” The actions by the DOE’s contractor create anything but that atmosphere.
If we can ever truly have such an atmosphere in our federal government, then we need more whistleblowers like Walt Tamosaitis, and more Members of Congress like Ed Markey. Dr. Tamosaitis should be honored—not fired—for looking out for the health and safety of others. At the very least, he ought to get justice for the retaliation he has endured.