Safety is the top priority for workers engaged in the complex cleanup at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington state.
The dangers there are many, from heavy metals in the soil to asbestos in decommissioned buildings to huge tanks full of toxic chemicals and dangerous levels of radioactivity. Workers are expected to follow safety protocols closely, and speak up if they spot anything wrong.
But for Shelly Doss, speaking up meant losing her job as an environmental specialist. Her 2011 firing made her just one more Hanford whistleblower to lose a job for reporting problems. And her case shows how little regard the private companies that do most of the work at Hanford have for government agencies charged with protecting workers from unfair punishment and retaliation.
Shelly Doss spent 23 years working at Hanford's tank farms -- where 56 million gallons of radioactive chemical waste is stored. She earned awards for her dedication and leadership on the job.
But in 2008 a new private company was given the contract to manage the tank farms, and it was then that Doss said she noticed a change in culture. Her job was to make sure the company, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), followed the permits issued by the state -- rules issued by the Department of Ecology governing how the cleanup should proceed.
"We have those permits for a reason. To keep the people and the environment safe, and if you just ignore them you're not doing anyone any favors. You risk contaminating the person, contaminating the ground, contaminating the environment around you," Doss said.
Doss said she found that WRPS was falling short on safety. In one example, a work area was not properly wrapped in special plastic to keep toxic waste from contaminating the ground and, potentially, anyone working in the area.
Doss also said she was asked to lie on the job. Her manager urged her to sign an official document to be sent to the state showing she had inspected dozens of wells that lead to groundwater at the site. In fact, Doss was not able to locate the wells and did not inspect them. She refused to sign the paperwork.
According to Doss, the violations she found were not a matter of slightly different interpretations of safety rules.
"These were blatant violations, and when I caught it I went, 'Whoa! Time out, we have to stop. We cannot continue like this, we have to report this,'" she said.
But Doss said her WRPS bosses didn't agree. They wanted Doss to ignore six major violations she flagged in a two-year period. Her manager removed her from all six of the projects until she had no work duties left.
"They were angry that I brought up these violations. They were very angry because they had been getting away with it," she said.
In October 2011, WRPS fired Doss. In the months and years after, she and her family began to experience financial problems. Doss said she found herself suffering from depression and anxiety.
A pattern at Hanford
What Doss went through is similar to how big contractors at Hanford treated other whistleblowers. In the last year, URS, a major company that owns half of WPRS, fired two high profile managers who would not back down from their concerns over nuclear safety issues.
Dr. Walt Tamosaitis' case has drawn national attention over the past four years. He charges that he was unfairly punished starting in 2010 after he raised concerns about a critical part of the $13 billion Waste Treatment Plant (WTP), a project overseen by his employer, the URS Corporation, which is a subcontractor to Bechtel National. The plant will one day convert the nuclear sludge in Hanford's tank farms into stable glass for long-term storage.
Last October, URS fired Tamosaitis, a 44-year veteran engineer. He said he believes the company got rid of him to get rid of his whistleblower suit, noting that URS offered him a severance package with a single string attached: The money is available only if all current and future lawsuits are dropped.
Before he was fired, URS had moved Tamosaitis a makeshift office in the basement. He sat alone in a cramped space full of storage boxes, rat poison feeders and copy machines. He was not assigned any work and had no boss to report to. He was expected to report to work ... to do nothing.
Similarly, URS employee Donna Busche was fired in February. She, too, had raised concerns about the WTP's design and alleged she was punished by her employer as a result. Busche was a key environmental and nuclear safety manager with decades of experience.
Shelly Doss's attorney, Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, says retaliation against whistleblowers sends a dangerous signal to the workforce: to keep quiet or else.
"The effect of that is to send a message throughout the whole work force that no one should raise a concern. If you stick your head up it's going to get blown off. So that's a very powerful message to everybody. So people decide not to risk their careers and not step forward to report issues," said Carpenter. "At the heart of all this is safety. Employees are not feeling safe to speak out about safety issues…and therefore there are safety problems that could cause an explosion, cause a fire, a release of radioactivity or hurt workers out there."
Justice without justice
After she was fired, Doss pursued a whistleblower claim against WRPS. The company's defense: Doss wasn't fired, she lost her job as part of a routine workforce reduction.
But last month Doss received word that the Department of Labor found that WRPS "illegally terminated" her in retaliation for voicing safety concerns, specifically ruling that the company's claim that she was separated as a part of a routine reduction "isn't credible."
The Labor Department issued an order that Doss was to be immediately reinstated and paid back wages and fines for the company's "callous disregard" of her rights.
"The evidence supports that every time (Doss) voiced an environmental or nuclear safety concern, (WRPS) took her off that project until she hardly had any work assignments left. (Doss) was slowly stripped of her job duties," wrote the Sec. of Labor.
"It's like, 'Wow, whoo hoo! This is great, this is wonderful,'" Doss said of her reaction to the news.
But it was too soon to celebrate. Instead of abiding by the Labor Department's finding, WRPS has not rehired Doss or even made contact with her. The company has 30 days to appeal the decision to an administrative judge. But according to Dept. of Labor representatives, WRPS was to reinstate Doss regardless of any appeal, which could take years to come to completion.
For Doss, it's a matter of waiting for justice ... again.
As for WRPS, the company declined KING 5's requests for an on camera interview to discuss the Doss case. This is not surprising. In 18 months of reporting on Hanford, WRPS has refused every KING 5 request for an on camera interview.