Whistleblowers ‘Chased Out’ Ouster Comes Despite Order From Hazel O’Leary
In 1994, a beaming Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary showcased her support for nuclear whistleblowers in a group photo.
It captured in black and white a startling moment at the end of the Cold War: praise from the top for some of the Energy Department’s harshest critics.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Two years later, all three women from Hanford invited to Washington, D.C., for the photograph have been ousted from their jobs.
They are Sonja Anderson, Gaidine Oglesbee and Inez Austin, workers O’Leary praised for revealing serious safety problems at Hanford’s aging nuclear waste tanks and plutonium mills.
“We need whistleblowers,” she told hundreds of participants at a high-profile conference on government accountability two years ago.
“We’ve been abandoned,” Austin said last week.
“These women have clearly been chased out,” said Alene Anderson of the Government Accountability Project in Seattle, a group that represents whistleblowers.
Hanford contractors have ignored a directive from O’Leary to retain the women.
Sonja Anderson was laid off in mid-April from ICF Kaiser Hanford Co., where she worked as a scientist.
Westinghouse Hanford Co. fired Oglesbee in April for “abusive conduct.” Austin was ousted from her office after her Westinghouse boss said she quit. She says she was fired.
Westinghouse refuses to discuss details. They are “personnel, not whistleblower” issues, said company spokesman Craig Kuhlman.
The women have a far different take on why they lost their jobs.
They got the ax shortly after the trio accused Hanford managers of destroying documents on radiation contamination demanded by a federal court judge in February in the huge Hanford downwinders’ case. “This was tied directly to our efforts to disclose this (document destruction) to the court. They laid me off and fired Gai the same day. It was all well-orchestrated,” Austin said.
“Each of us received pressure … from management not to disclose relevant information” for the downwinders’ case, Sonja Anderson said in a May 26 letter to John Wagoner, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford boss.
Austin, a senior engineer, has worked at Hanford since 1981. In 1990, she refused to approve a plan to pump liquids out of several unstable waste tanks, worrying they could explode.
When she refused to sign off on the plan, Westinghouse ordered her to a psychologist, her office was taken away, and she suddenly had no work.
After she filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, Westinghouse managers gave her new work and erased negative evaluations in her files.
In 1991, she won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award for her stance.
Oglesbee’s revelations of health and environmental problems at a Hanford plutonium plant triggered an Energy Department headquarters investigation, which confirmed her reports about safety hazards at the plant.
Sonja Anderson, a senior scientist, has testified before Congress and won national recognition for her often-critical safety analyses of Hanford’s plutonium factories and waste tanks.
In 1989, she went to the Energy Department’s Office of Inspector General in Richland with complaints that Westinghouse was repeatedly ignoring safety and environmental problems. The Inspector General’s office illegally told Westinghouse that Sonja Anderson was passing on information, records show. She suffered repeated harassment on the job and at home.
In 1994, the Labor Department ruled she’d been illegally harassed. She received a cash settlement and a raise from her Hanford bosses.
The ousters send a signal to other Hanford employees, Sonja Anderson said.
“They’ve used us as examples. There will be no more active whistleblowers at Hanford,” she said.
The Energy Department’s Richland office isn’t trying to stifle whistleblowers, department spokeswoman Karen Randolph said.
“I certainly don’t think this has had a chilling effect. We continue to listen to employees who raise safety concerns and issues,” she said.
The women’s ousters came at an awkward time for the Energy Department - just before O’Leary’s April 18 trip to Hanford.
She arrived without the large press entourage of her earlier days in the Clinton administration, when she was grabbing headlines for condemning human radiation experiments and pushing a new era of openness at the government’s nuclear plants.
O’Leary’s image has been battered by recent accounts of her lavish travel style and for hiring a consultant to rate reporters who cover her.
O’Leary came to Hanford to open a new facility for nuclear waste storage. But when she learned of the women’s ouster, she agreed to meet with them.
Hanford boss Wagoner and Tom Carpenter, an attorney for the Government Accountability Project, also attended the meeting.
O’Leary told Wagoner to “put a circle” around the women and put their terminations on hold - by the following Monday.
Two months later, they are still out of work. The Hanford Joint Council, a group formed to investigate whistleblower issues at Hanford, has been silent.
Hanford contractors vetoed bringing their cases before the council, said one council member.
The Energy Department has hired the council’s chairman, University of Washington professor Jon Brock, to investigate.
“We hired him to work with the three individuals and come to some sort of resolution,” Randolph said.
“I’m trying to move on it quickly,” Brock said.
Meanwhile, O’Leary is continuing her high-profile praise for some Hanford whistleblowers.
Last Wednesday, she presented the $10,000 Cavallo Award for moral courage to Casey Ruud, a former Hanford auditor who in 1986 flagged serious safety problems at a Hanford plutonium plant.
As a result of Ruud’s audits, the government shut down all of Hanford’s plutonium factories for safety reviews.
Ruud is the only Hanford whistleblower in the 1994 photo with O’Leary to still hold a job with the Energy Department. He oversees the management of high-level nuclear wastes in the Hanford tank farms.
But for Hanford’s three female whistleblowers, O’Leary’s words of praise have proved meaningless.
“It was all a lie,” Austin said.
Hanford’s contractors are to blame, said Jerry Pollett, an attorney with Heart of America Northwest, a Hanford watchdog group in Seattle.
O’Leary’s commitment to whistleblowers - including the three women - is sincere, Pollett said.
“She came to Hanford with a commitment to protect them. But when she leaves town, no Hanford officials are held responsible for fulfilling her mandate,” Pollett said.
“There are people at Hanford who are simply waiting for her to leave office,” Sonja Anderson said.
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