Hanford Whistle-Blower -- Breaking The Code -- Citing Harassment, An Employee Stands Firm: `If It Costs Me My Job, This One Was Worth Saying No To'




RICHLAND - A Hanford engineer who tried to block a potentially deadly operation says she has been harassed constantly by her employer since.

Inez Austin refused to sign a report last June that would have allowed Westinghouse Hanford Co. to start a pumping operation that could cause nuclear-waste tanks containing tons of deadly radioactive chemicals to explode.

Her caution was later supported by a U.S. government report.

Austin cried during an interview Friday night as she described her treatment.

Once a highly rated employee, she says her boss threatened to fire her, her work was taken away, she was told to see a company psychologist, her office mail stopped coming for two months and she was moved repeatedly.

``If it costs me my job, this one was worth saying no to,'' she said.

Austin's refusal to sign the report delayed the pumping long enough for her employer, the Westinghouse Hanford Co., to see the draft of a General Accounting Office report in August that said ``not enough is known about the waste in the single-shell tanks to definitely rule out the possibility of a spontaneous explosion.'' The company then halted the pumping, but not Austin's harassment, she says.

The report by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, says the probability of an explosion appears to be low, but if one were to occur, the consequences might be greater than current estimates suggest. The report said more studies are needed.

Hanford's 149 aging single-shell tanks, which often leak, contain millions of gallons of deadly leftovers from the production of nuclear weapons.

Westinghouse was scrambling to meet deadlines under the state-federal cleanup agreement signed nearly two years ago that required the pumping of five tanks by last September.

Twenty-two of the single-shell tanks contain a chemical called ferrocyanide that can rapidly heat up and burn when it dries out, which theoretically could occur if liquids are pumped out. Two of the five tanks scheduled for pumping this year have ferrocyanide in them.

Westinghouse spokesman John Burk also says the company is committed to protecting whistle-blowers from harassment. Austin's case is being investigated, he says.

Just six weeks ago, Secretary of Energy James Watkins visited Hanford and promised whistle-blowers protection from retaliation.

Gov. Booth Gardner's office has been aware of Austin's case for months, and is very concerned, says Dan Silver, an aide who works on Hanford issues for the governor.

``Our folks say that she's been treated terribly. She's been ostracized and harassed,'' Silver said.

Silver says the governor's office has received a number of complaints from other Hanford whistle-blowers. He says top Westinghouse managers are making a major effort to curb intimidation of people who raise safety concerns, but some of the 1,200 managers at Westinghouse Hanford aren't listening.

``It is a real slugfest, an intense struggle on the site, between those who are trying to change and those who are resisting change,'' Silver said.

On Friday, Austin attended a company meeting in which employees were told that under a new Westinghouse program, whistle-blowers will be rewarded for raising their concerns and managers will be downgraded if they harass them.

Austin says employees who believe that are naive, just as she was when she was a highly rated Hanford employee who got straight As on her performance appraisals and double-digit raises. She used to call herself ``Mrs. Westinghouse'' because of her loyalty.

``I was such a golden-haired child. I never in my life believed you could take a safety concern and not be listened to. I have done some growing up. I always thought you couldn't tell the truth and get in trouble. And I was wrong,'' she said.

``I really believed in what Hanford was doing, and I don't any more,'' said the 11-year Hanford veteran.

Burk, the Westinghouse spokesman, says there are inconsistencies in her story, but she is being taken seriously and in some areas she was certainly right.

``There is a real commitment on the part of top management to see that we don't have the kinds of issues that have arisen with Inez Austin,'' he said.

``Looking at record, it looks as though she's been a good, solid employee that at times has gone beyond the normal expectations,'' he said.

Burk says the company has retracted a letter of reprimand that Austin was given, not because ``anyone screwed up'' but because they want to reach a ``middle ground'' with Austin. He says company president Roger Nichols will oversee the completion of a new draft of a performance evaluation she got recently that downgraded her and questioned her teamwork. Her previous evaluations were exemplary.

The U.S. Labor Department is investigating a complaint she filed on Oct. 11 under a statute that protects whistle-blowers who report safety problems at toxic waste sites.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which owns Hanford and oversees Westinghouse operations there, nearly blocked the Labor Department probe by insisting it had the only jurisdiction in the matter. But Labor Department official Richard Backer, in Seattle, insisted his agency had jurisdiction and on Thursday, after The Times inquired into the matter, the Energy Department dropped its objections.

Ken Morgan, Energy Department spokesman at Hanford, says the federal agency welcomes the Labor Department probe.

Austin, 40, is described in performance evaluations as a worker who gets things done. She moved to Richland in 1976 and got her first Hanford job in 1979. Her husband also works at Hanford for a research firm, and she has two grown children.

Her career advanced quickly. There was a year as a radiation monitor for a federal contractor, a shorter time as a welding inspector on a commercial nuclear reactor, three years as a quality-control inspector at nuclear-weapons plants and then a higher-level job as an engineering-team supervisor.

Austin transferred last year to an engineering job at Hanford's tank farms, where the world's largest collection of highly radioactive wastes are stored.

She became a senior engineer, and in February she was named to the tank farm's Readiness Review Board for single-shell tanks, a panel of experts that approves major projects on the tanks before they can begin.

That's where she got into trouble. In June, her boss gave her three days to prepare a report on safety issues involving the pumping of liquid from the five waste tanks.

The ferrocyanide issue had hit the press eight months earlier, and Westinghouse was under fire to address it, she says. More than 200 tons of the stuff was dumped into 22 Hanford waste tanks during 1950s to consolidate waste in the tanks through a chemical process, according to a 1989 Westinghouse report.

But despite ferrocyanide concerns, the company was preparing last June to remove as much liquid as possible from the depths of two of the ferrocyanide tanks, using a suction pipe drilled through a heavy, thick crust that forms on the top of the waste in the tanks.

Austin says it would be similar to sucking water out of a fishbowl full of marbles. The ferrocyanide would be the marbles.

If ferrocyanide dries out, it could burn and cause explosions that some reports say would equal as much as 36 tons of TNT, spreading waste for miles.

Burk says the company didn't intend to suck out all the water. He says liquid beneath the crusts of 15 ferrocyanide tanks has been pumped in the past and there have been no explosions. The pumping was halted in 1985 because Hanford managers then believed that enough liquid had been removed from the tanks.

Burk says that even when pumped thoroughly, the sludge at the bottom of the tank remains moist.

But there isn't much room for error. One Hanford report Austin uncovered says liquid can't be easily reintroduced to the deep waste if it ever does get too dry and overheats. She said a common theme in the reports about the tanks was that they should not be pumped dry.

Austin says despite the reports she found, Westinghouse managers were adamant about going ahead with the pumping because if cleanup deadlines are not met, the state can take the federal government to court.

``Safety simply wasn't considered,'' Austin said of her dealings with Westinghouse managers. ``It was stated in many ways, if a manager missed his (cleanup agreement) milestone, he could kiss his job good-bye.''

``And you didn't want to be the person who rocked the boat,'' she said.

Don Provost, a technical adviser for the state Department of Ecology, says the state is sorry that Westinghouse didn't pay attention to Austin's concern earlier because the pumping equipment could have been moved to other tanks.

``She wasn't doing it on a hunch; she knew her facts,'' says Provost, who has reviewed Austin's documents. ``Even though the risk (of pumping) would have been low, there was no reason to take even that low risk.''

When Austin completed her report on the ferrocyanide, her boss told her to rewrite it and when she handed in a new draft she was told to rewrite it again. She says the new drafts watered down her concerns.

``I said I will not put my name on that document. They told me I would do it or else,'' she said.

Austin discovered that an engineer had omitted concerns from another report that also was required before the company could start the pumping. The issues in this case were minor compared to the ferrocyanide question. Burk confirms that Austin's objections to the engineer's report were correct.

Eventually she resigned from the readiness-review committee, saying in a July 24 memo that when she was assigned to the committee, she felt it was ``because they were looking for a person with integrity. '' Being told to sign the ferrocyanide report ``or get fired'' was the final blow for her, she wrote.

Tom Carpenter, her lawyer, is with a Washington, D.C., whistle-blower organization called the Government Accountability Project, and has represented several Hanford whistle-blowers. He says what happened next fits a disturbing pattern at Hanford.

Carpenter cites Casey Ruud, an auditor who lost his job after he raised safety concerns that led to the shutdown of two plutonium plants; James Simpkin, a nuclear-reactor inspector who lost his job after writing accurate memos critical of safety at Hanford's now-mothballed N Reactor; and Ed Bricker, a tank-farm worker who is now suing Westinghouse and a former contractor over his harassment for speaking out about safety.

After Austin resigned from the committee, she was docked some overtime pay and a critical letter was placed in her file. A personnel officer told Austin she should see the company psychiatrist because there was a concern for her mental health. The suggestion was repeated just recently, she says.

``This isn't communist Russia,'' said Austin. ``You don't send people you disagree with to a psychiatrist. That went out in the 1920s.''

Austin was moved from an office that overlooked a grass courtyard into a trailer that was dirty and stacked with boxes. There was no desk and Austin had to lug the boxes out on her own. The trailer was near the company psychiatrist's office, which Austin was told would be convenient for her.

She says the trailer was alternately unbearably hot or cold. She discovered the controls in the office of a personnel officer who had a reputation for being tough on whistle-blowers. Austin is convinced the woman was trying to aggravate her. Austin fought to regain control of her working conditions.

``I thought if I was going to be a pariah, I would at least be a comfortable pariah,'' she said.

She was later moved to a better trailer.

Austin was without work to do for two weeks. She now has a job reorganizing uncompleted Hanford project files. For two months her mail was not delivered. Now she gets her letters by having them addressed to an officemate rather than to herself.

Burk says Austin was reprimanded not for raising safety concerns, but for missing some work and a meeting of the readiness review committee.

He says he's unaware of Austin being told to see a psychiatrist or psychologist, and he says he also doesn't know about anyone taking away her work: ``She's had plenty of work to do.''

Regarding the dingy trailer, Burk said, ``She's not the only one who has office problems on the site.'' Office space is tight out in the tank farms, he says.

Penny Phelps, another Westinghouse spokesperson, says Austin may be missing her mail because she has moved around from office to office so much, making it difficult to keep up with her.

Austin's career, Burk says, has not been jeopardized.

Burk predicts the company's new whistle-blower program will be a good one, but, ``unfortunately, stories like this create the impression it doesn't work at all.''

Austin says she used to think the Hanford whistle-blowing she read about in Seattle newspapers was unnecessary.

``I always thought you guys on the west side were crazy. Now I'm really scared that you might not be.''


Single-wall tanks: Hanford's 149 single-wall tanks contain radioactive and chemical waste. No new material is added to the storage tanks. They were constructed between 1944 and 1964. A number of vents and monitors keep tabs on Hanford's 149 single-shell tanks.

Double-wall tanks: Hanford has 28 double-shell tanks, (not pictured) each of which can contain 1 million gallons of highly radioactive and chemical waste from nuclear-weapons production. While all single-shell tanks are below ground, some of the double-walled tanks are built above ground. A number of vents and monitors keep tabs on these tanks.

Source: Department of Energy documents