This post was written by freelancer Joshua Frank. Last month I wrote about the alleged catastrophic mismanagement of the largest environmental cleanup in history at Hanford's former nuclear plant ("Hanford's Nuclear Option"). Now, one of the story's central figures, a whistleblower who says he was demoted for going public, has filed a lawsuit.
Tamosaitis' suit isn't unique; there have been other whistle blower actions to emerge from Hanford. But it is rare because of who it's targeting.
Along with suing his current employer, URS Corporation, Tamosaitis has also implicated the Department of Energy (DOE) for having a hand in his demotion. And there are others who see that influence as well.
"There is a lot of solid evidence that points to DOE's involvement [in Dr. Tamosaitis' demotion]," says Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based group that supports Hanford whistleblowers. "DOE is supposed to protect and investigate whistleblower claims, not suppress and push to fire these individuals for raising issues."
To step back for a moment: URS and Bechtel have been contracted by the DOE to construct the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP), which is central to Hanford's long-term cleanup. The plant's ultimate goal: to turn some 56 million gallons of radioactive gunk into glass rods.
Before his demotion, Tamosaitis was a high-level systems engineer at WTP. Then he says he raised 50 concerns he had with certain design and safety elements at the plant, which is costing taxpayers billions of dollars to complete with no end in sight.
Now Tamosaitis is no longer involved in the Hanford project at all. Instead, he occupies a basement office in Richland.
Tamosaitis says he doesn't want money from the DOE; he simply wants his old job. And in his attempt to get it back, he's made it clear that he's not afraid to point fingers at those he believes were involved in getting him ousted.
Last summer the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), an independent organization that oversees public health and safety issues at the DOE's nuclear facilities, reported that there is a "chilled atmosphere adverse to safety" at Hanford where DOE and contractor management "suppress technical dissent." The lawsuit, which supports DNFSB's claims, alleges that Bechtel management and DOE brass were concerned that the issues Tamosaitis was raising could put $50 million of WTP funding in jeopardy.
In a taped deposition, Project Manager Frank Russo of Bechtel verified the names of DOE officials who he had discussions with about Tamosaitis: Dale Knutson, who is the Federal Project Director for DOE at Hanford, DOE Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman, and Inés R. Triay, who served as Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management under Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu until July 2011. Triay and Poneman were both Obama appointees.
In his deposition, Russo admitted to writing an email to his boss, Bechtel President David Walker, which stated that he briefed Inés and Poneman on the issue, but was careful to note that they should not appear to be involved in the decision to remove Tamosaitis.
Here now, an excerpt from Tamosaitis' lawyer Sheridan deposition of Russo:
"Okay. And you wrote to [David Walker] that 'Yes, she, Poneman and Dale stated that they understand the reason for Walt's departure and support [Bechtel] management. They are not happy with URS handling, but this could all change. DOE can't be seen as involved.' Did you write that?"
"Yes, I did," responded Russo.
"All right. But -- but it's true, is it not, that you had some concerns that the $50 million -- that Dr. Tamosaitis' conduct may in some way jeopardize the 50 million?" Sheridan asked Russo.
"He had some concerns," responded Russo.
"Your boss [David Walker]?" questioned Sheridan.
"Yes," Russo answered, nodding his head.
The lawsuit against DOE isn't the only avenue the disgruntled engineer is taking in an attempt to get his job back. He is also suing Bechtel in Washington State court, with that trial to begin in May of next year.