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Northwest News Network

Hanford Contractors Defend Worksite Culture, Scrutinize Whistleblower

In this file photo from 2013 Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tours Hanford's troubled waste treatment plant.
In this file photo from 2013 Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tours Hanford's troubled waste treatment plant.

Higher-level managers for major Hanford contractors testified in a three-day U.S. Department of Labor hearing this week. The case is over the layoff of a whistleblower at the southwest Washington nuclear site’s under-construction waste treatment plan.

The massive Hanford Waste Treatment Plant is supposed to treat millions of gallons of radioactive sludge. It has seen huge technical problems and delays.

Lawyers for whistleblower Walt Ford argued that his managers played dangerous and unsanitary pranks. Workers were injured.

Companies Bechtel and URS argued that managers and workers only played harmless pranks. They also focused on the whistleblower’s personal life and mistakes on the job: Like that Ford was going through a divorce at the time and he used the household cleaner Simple Green when he wasn’t supposed to.

Ford’s team of lawyers countered that Simple Green was used a lot by other workers at the time Ford was employed at the waste treatment plant.

Witnesses also said Ford was a by-the-book kind of guy, called “Mr. Clean Jeans,” and always presentable. Some witnesses said Ford never played pranks like his managers, or slept in safety meetings, although lots of other workers did and didn’t get in trouble for it.

Ford’s lawyers also contend he lost his family home in Pasco and underwent severe emotional and financial distress when he lost his position at the waste treatment plant.

Bechtel and URS said that layoffs at the Waste Treatment Plant happen regularly, and many workers were laid off at that same time.

The U.S. Department of Labor found last year that Ford lost his job unfairly in 2011 for raising safety concerns while working at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, and since then, that he’s been blacklisted from other jobs. The current hearing would determine a financial award.

A Labor Department judge will review the week's testimony and a huge binder full of evidence. 

Copyright 2016 Northwest News Network