Dealing With DOE Hazards

Regarding your recent article on Joe Carson, the DOE whistleblower: Some people go along with whatever they are told to do at work; some put up with it as long as they can and then leave; and a very few, like Joe, stand their ground and stay in their jobs, trying to change things. ["The Curious Case of Joe Carson—Whistleblower," cover story by Chris Barrett, July 23, 2009]

I myself was a whistleblower. As a health physicist and radiological engineer, I reported radiation protection violations and concerns up the chain of command at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for years, including to some field DOE people, to no avail. My radiological engineering group and I were harassed and retaliated against repeatedly while the rad protection procedures were dumbed down alarmingly. Our management went along with it because as my division director told me, if we didn't, operational management would outsource our work and we would lose our jobs. A DOE safety person told me that his hands were tied by orders from on high—he could look at only blatant violations. In 2000 I finally went to local DOE headquarters and submitted a complaint about the safety problems and the retaliations. I was laid off shortly afterward.

This mass layoff was supposedly for financial reasons, but the safety and health people were laid off at a much higher rate than the operational and administrative people. This sent a message about what the remaining folks would have to do to keep their jobs. I had been personally targeted in the layoff, as documents later showed: I had reported at length about the problems to the manager who personally chose the layoffees. The one retained person in my group was the least senior and least experienced, but operational people preferred him because he played ball with them.

I pursued a case in the DOE whistleblower system. Metro Pulse wrote about it in 2002, interviewing me and my lawyer, Margaret Held. We won the case, which went all the way up to the Secretary of Energy. To forestall a DOE-embarrassing appeal to the court of appeals by the contractor, DOE pressured us to settle. I received a reduced settlement in return for no confidentiality clause—I wanted to be able to write about all that had happened. (My book about the case is posted on the Internet; just Google me.) I did not ask for my job back; at the settlement meeting, the contractor reps said my job had disappeared and they would "have to find something for you to do." This was in front of the Washington facilitator, a DOE lawyer who knew it was illegal for them to say that but who did not object. So I knew I would not be allowed to do any real rad protection work and DOE would not protect me.

Metro Pulse readers should know that they as taxpayers paid for half my settlement, or about $140,000, as a FOIA request showed. I believe that DOE also paid the contractor's legal fees, although these are not supposed to be chargeable to DOE unless the contractor wins. The plaintiff, of course, pays his own fees.

Like Joe, I found that DOE provides no support to the plaintiff. DOE allegedly does not take sides and therefore could not help me by providing documents or aiding discovery on my case, even though safety issues were involved. Meanwhile, the contractor had DOE's ear at all times.

In the whistleblower hearing, my manager testified that he had a sheaf of E-mail messages and telephone notes complaining about me, but he could not produce them. My brave supervisor testified that there had also been various messages praising my work. A courageous colleague from a criticality group testified favorably about my work and described retaliation against him by one of the same operational groups that had retaliated against me.

The last time I saw Joe, years ago, he told me that he did have some real work to do. But it seems clear that Joe has not had the career he might otherwise have had, which is true of me, too. I eventually got another full-time job, but it was on the national sick worker compensation project (EEOICPA), where I was not affecting the health or safety of any living person. I worked there for 4.5 years, until the government down-funded the project in 2006 and my whole group was laid off. I haven't been able to find another job in my field; I say that it may be because of my age, but deep down I think it is because I am wearing the scarlet letter W. I am a successful tutor of college and high school students, but it is a marginal living.

DOE's actual attitude toward health and safety whistleblowers is clearly revealed in Joe's and my cases. DOE likes to blame any adverse safety impacts on culture problems with the contractors, but DOE needs to clean its own house first. DOE talks the talk, but they don't walk the walk by making strong rules and consistently enforcing them.

To those who think that whistleblowers are just another species of rat, I ask, if you were a worker who was dealing with hazards, who would you want to examine the safety and health aspects of your facility and your job: Joe and me or some of those "go along to get along" guys?

Janet Westbrook

Oak Ridge