Eleven Whistleblowers Bring Retaliation Claims Against Fluor Federal Services Company
(Washington, DC) – On Monday, July 18, the long-awaited trial in the case of 11 Hanford pipefitter whistleblowers, represented by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and Seattle attorney Jack Sheridan, begins at 9:00 a.m. at the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick, Washington. A string of safety issues, culminating in a dispute over an unsafe valve, has spiraled into a long and bitter legal battle waged between these pipefitters and Department of Energy (DOE) contractors at the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state.
The case revolves around the initial firing of seven pipefitters, let go after refusing to install an unsafe valve in the tank farm system that holds approximately 53 million gallons of high-level nuclear and toxic waste underground. If the valve failed, it would have risked serious injury or death for those in the vicinity, potentially spread contamination, and jeopardized the structural integrity of the storage tanks.
After enlisting GAP’s legal assistance, these seven workers charged Fluor Federal Services and Fluor Hanford, Inc., DOE contractors, with whistleblower retaliation in August 1997 (Both companies are subsidiaries of Fluor, Inc.). After the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ruled in the workers’ favor, the companies agreed to reinstate the pipefitters and settle lost wages. Fluor Hanford, Inc. is no longer a defendant in the lawsuit, leaving Fluor Federal Services as the sole defendant.
However, Fluor Federal Services laid off seven other pipefitters to, according to a Fluor Hanford lawyer, make room for the returning workers, a claim subsequently revealed in later testimony to be false. A Fluor Federal Services executive spread a false rumor that the original seven pipefitters had agreed to the dismissal of these workers as part of their reinstatement. Other employees, believing the rumor, were upset at the returning crew for agreeing to dump their union brothers. This created hostility, which quickly turned into retaliation.
Five of the original pipefitters were laid-off again within one year of returning. Several other witnesses were subsequently laid-off or terminated after testifying in support of the original pipefitters. In May 2001, the five laid-off original pipefitters, along with six others, filed suit. Since that time, the case has taken many twists and turns, including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by the company, which declined to overturn a ruling by the Washington Supreme Court in favor of the pipefitters.
Tom Carpenter, GAP Nuclear Oversight Program Director, stated “This case has turned into a grudge match by the Fluor contractor, which has declared war on free speech at the Hanford Site when it comes to raising safety issues. The real question is why the Department of Energy continues to allow Fluor to spend profligate amounts of taxpayer dollars fighting these workers. A message is being sent to workers to not raise safety issues or risk being blackballed forever from the Hanford Site.”
FOIA requests reveal that the government has reimbursed Fluor contractors millions of dollars in legal costs associated with the case. If Fluor Federal Services loses, that company risks being ordered to reimburse all of its legal costs and remedies to the government under existing rules. It also risks a civil penalty by the DOE Price Anderson Act enforcement office, which recently assessed a $54,000 fine against an Ohio contractor for whistleblower reprisal. A similar fine in the pipefitter case could approach $600,000.
The trial is anticipated to last around six weeks. Attorney Jack Sheridan will litigate on behalf of GAP. Jury selection is slated to begin Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. at the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick, Washington. More background regarding the pipefitter case can be found on the GAP website.