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Hanford contractors decline to comment on whistleblowers

WASHINGTON – Contractors handling the cleanup and redevelopment of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation wouldn’t answer questions from lawmakers on Tuesday about whether two employees were fired for raising safety concerns.

Executives from URS and Bechtel, the two lead contractors at Hanford, declined to comment due to pending litigation over the recent firings of whistleblowers Donna Busche and Walter Tamosaitis.

Department of Energy officials also testified that they were not consulted prior to either dismissal but were aware of the allegations surrounding Busche.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who chaired the hearing, expressed frustration that the contractors are using taxpayer funds to go after Busche and Tamosaitis in court. By contract, URS is reimbursed by the federal government for any legal fees associated with Hanford.

Busche was fired last month and Tamosaitis was fired in December after raising safety concerns at the nation’s most polluted nuclear weapons production site.

McCaskill said in an interview after the hearing that she wasn’t satisfied with URS’ and Bechtel’s answers and hoped they would address concerns raised by the whistleblowers.

“One of the things we can do is make sure that all those technical concerns that both of the people who were asked to leave the company” raised are addressed, McCaskill said. “We’re going to continue down this path until I think all of us are more comfortable that things are under control here.”

A spokesperson for URS testified during the hearing that concerns from both whistleblowers have not been revisited since their firings. A report last week documented newly discovered construction flaws in storage tanks at Hanford as energy department officials are looking into building newer storage tanks for the millions of gallons of extremely radioactive materials.

Despite the outstanding problems, President Barack Obama proposed cutting Hanford’s funding by over $60 million as part of his 2015 budget proposal.