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Contractor Must Rehire Whistleblower

Monday, August 25, 2014

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The contractor that is removing 177 underground storage tanks from the U.S.'s largest nuclear site has been ordered to reinstate an employee who had voiced safety and environmental concerns.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration announced Wednesday (Aug. 20) that Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), of Richland, WA, had violated federal whistleblower laws in firing environmental specialist Shelly Doss from her position at the Hanford Site.

The contractor was ordered to pay $220,000 in back wages and other expenses and rehire Doss, who had filed a whistleblower complaint in October 2011 after being laid off.

She had raised numerous environmental, safety and radiation-related issues with management at the site, according to Hanford Challenge, the watchdog group that represented Doss in her whistleblower claim.

Shelly Doss

Shelly Doss will receive $200,000 in back pay and other expenses plus her old job back after being wrongfully terminated for voicing nuclear and environmental concerns.

The Hanford Site produced plutonium for nuclear weapons from 1943 until about 1987. The production processes left solid and liquid waste that posed a risk to the local environment. The Department of Energy entered into an agreement in 1989 to clean up the site.

WRPS is cleaning up 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste stored in underground tanks near the center of the 586-square-mile Hanford Site. This includes moving waste out of 149 aging single-shell tanks into newer, safer double-shell tanks.

Paying for Retaliation

OSHA has ordered WRPS to rehire Doss with the same pay and benefits that she would currently receive if not for the termination. The company must also pay her $185,949 in lost pay plus interest, $24,380 in compensatory damages, and $10,000 in exemplary damages and reasonable attorney's fees.

"The people most able to identify hazards are often the workers who are threatened by them," said Galen Lemke, OSHA's acting regional administrator.

"Employees must never be punished for sounding an alarm when they see a problem that could injure, sicken or kill someone, or harm the environment."

WRPS will also have to post a "Your Rights Under the Energy Reorganization Act" poster, remove disciplinary information from Doss' personnel record, and provide whistleblower rights information to its employees.

Previous Agreement

The mother of three had worked at Hanford for 20 years "when she was harassed, removed from her job and subjected to retaliation in 2009 after reporting violations of state and federal environmental laws," Hanford Challenge said.

Hanford Site
Department of Energy

"Employees must never be punished for sounding an alarm when they see a problem that could injure, sicken or kill someone, or harm the environment," said Galen Lemke, OSHA's acting regional administrator.

WRPS entered into a mediated settlement agreement with Doss after she filed a whistleblower complaint with the Department of Labor. WRPS agreed to reinstate her and promised to support her in her new position, provide training, and not retaliate any further.

However, she was fired in October 2011 after she "continued to report environmental noncompliances (per her job description)," according to Hanford Challenge.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge and Doss' attorney, said Doss "properly reported and documented numerous environmental violations in a professional manner, and suggested ways to resolve those issues. Instead of praising her, WRPS management vilified her, ruined her career, and illegally fired her from her position."

When WRPS advertised the vacant position, the company refused to rehire Doss despite adequate qualifications and previous satisfactory performance reviews, OSHA said.

In October 2012, Doss also filed a supplemental complaint of discrimination, alleging that she had been blacklisted when WRPS posted an announcement for an environmental specialist job opening.

Stripped of Duties

The DOL said it found "reasonable cause" to believe that WRPS had violated environmental and nuclear whistleblower provisions. Every time Doss voiced a concern, the company removed her from the assignment, slowly stripping her of her job duties "until she hardly had any work assignments left," the agency said.

Hanford Challenge
Department of Energy

The Hanford Site produced plutonium for nuclear weapons from 1943 to 1987. The cleanup involves 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste.

"For the Employee Concerns Manager to participate in this behavior shows how out of touch with the law this company truly is when it comes to safety and ethics," Carpenter said. "Unhappily, this case is not an anomaly, but a way of life at WRPS."

Additionally, the DOL said there was sufficient evidence that Doss had been blacklisted. WRPS told OSHA that Doss was not rehired because she didn't meet the minimum job requirements.

"To the contrary, [Doss] did meet the minimum requirements for that position," the DOL stated.

Emotional Distress

According to the DOL, Doss suffered emotional distress, was depressed, "cried daily," and found it "difficult to leave her house."

"It has been a struggle to make it this far, and I am glad that I have been vindicated by this decision," Doss said. "I look forward to resuming my career and contributing to the best of my ability to an important mission of protecting worker health and safety and the environment as Hanford is cleaned up."

WRPS is a wholly owned subsidiary of URS, which has been "heavily criticized by Congress and others for the alleged retaliatory firings of two other high-profile managers ... at Hanford within the last year," Hanford Challenge said.


Tagged categories: Enforcement; Ethics; Health and safety; Lawsuits; Nuclear Power Plants; OSHA; Whistle blowing

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