Monday, December 21, 2009

NY Times: Nuclear Laboratory Whistle-Blower Is Disciplined for Questioning a Test

February 5, 1992
Nuclear Laboratory Whistle-Blower Is Disciplined for Questioning a Test

The Labor Department has upheld the claim of a technician at a Government nuclear laboratory in Tennessee who said that after he complained about safety, plant managers retaliated by ordering him to sit in a room filled with toxic and radioactive chemicals and do useless work.

The finding runs directly counter to the assertion of the Energy Secretary, James D. Watkins, that a "culture change" has taken place at the government-owned plants, in which employees are free to come forward and voice their safety concerns.

The technician, Charles D. Varnadore, an employee at Oak Ridge National Laboratory since 1974, was isolated from other employees in early 1991, the department's Nashville district director said in his Jan. 31 ruling, and was assigned to work in rooms that were "questionable in meeting safe standards for use as office space."

The government contractor that runs the laboratory is seeking to reverse the ruling on appeal, and Mr. Varnadore's lawyers have already filed their own appeal, on the ground that the ruling does not address their request for $1.5 million in damages. Complaints and Afterward

Mr. Varnadore, a 50-year-old mechanic, said that one reason for retaliation against him was that he appeared on the CBS Evening News last year, in a segment about elevated cancer rates among Oak Ridge personnel, expressing concern about the prevalence of cancer among fellow workers.

Mr. Varnadore himself had an operation for colon cancer in 1989, a cancer that he linked to longterm exposure to radiation. After the operation, he had 52 weeks of chemotherapy, ending in August 1990; he worked fewer than half of the days in that period.

After his chemotherapy, Mr. Varnadore returned to work on a steady basis. He soon began complaining about the way in which soil samples were being prepared for laboratory analysis, saying some of them were not refrigerated, as procedures called for. The effect would be to allow some of the pollutants to evaporate before they could be analyzed.

The Energy Department says the laboratory's operator, Martin Marietta Energy Systems, has had repeated problems preparing soil samples.

Mr. Varnadore was first isolated from other workers and supervisors early in 1991. After he appeared on CBS News in March, he was transfered to a room containing radioactive waste. In September he was moved to another room, which contained mercury, radioactive materials and asbestos. His lawyers called the rooms "indoor waste dumps." He was moved out of the second room in November after his lawyers complained.

Edward A. Slavin Jr., a lawyer with the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based group that seeks to protect whistle-blowers, said, "What they did borders on attempted murder, knowingly putting a cancer patient with a suppressed immune system in there."

Mr. Varnadore was also represented by the American Environmental Health Studies Project, a Washington-based group.

The Oak Ridge laboratory is owned by the Department of Energy and operated by Martin Marietta Energy Systems. The laboratory, which dates from the Manhattan Project, has a history of extensive environmental problems, but this is the first time a Government agency has found attempts at worker intimidation there.

The general counsel for Martin Marietta Energy Systems, G. Wilson Horde, said that the ruling was "based on incorrect findings of fact and opinions of law," and that the company would appeal to the Secretary of Labor. The ruling, Mr. Horde noted, was based on the finding of a single investigator, without giving the company the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.

The ruling is also a slap at Martin Marietta, which at an annual awards night in May 1991 honored the head of Mr. Varnadore's department, W. D. Shults, "for superior leadership" and "management contributions to the laboratory and the company."

Mr. Shults did not respond to a telephone message left at his office yesterday. Steven L. Wyatt, a spokesman for the Energy Department at Oak Ridge, said his department had no comment on the Labor Department ruling. Discrimination Is Found

Mr. Horde denied that Mr. Varnadore had ever been assigned "make-work" or otherwise penalized. "His history of employment is such that he has never been discriminated against," Mr. Horde said. "The company has leaned over backwards to keep him employed."

But George Friday, the district director in the Nashville office of the Labor Department's Wage-Hour Division, ruled that in violation of the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and two other Federal laws Mr. Varnadore suffered "discrimination" for raising safety issues. The ruling stated that the discrimination included "creating a hostile work environment, giving him assignments which were not commensurate with his abilities" and "isolating him from employees and supervisors," as well as giving him poor performance reviews.

The Labor Department ordered that Mr. Varnadore be restored "to an appropriate position with all compensation, terms, conditions and privileges of his employment" and that he be reimbursed for legal costs. Mr. Varnadore said he had not yet been reassigned to meaningful work, adding that he would like to return to a job that made use of his mechanical appitude.

Mr. Varnadore described his current work as janitorial or make-work clerical tasks.

Photo: The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is seeking to reverse a claim, upheld by the Labor Department, by Charles D. Varnadore, an employee. He said that management at the nuclear laboratory in Tennessee had retaliated against him by making him sit in an unsafe room after he appeared on the CBS Evening News and expressed concern about the prevalence of cancer in fellow workers. (Ken Murray for The New York Times)

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