Up in Arms

Published — October 21, 2014

Energy Department inspector blocked from probing dismissal of Hanford engineer

A sign informs visitors of prohibited items on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington in July 2014. Ted S. Warren/AP

Inspector says DOE contracts allowed access to key documents, but Hanford contractors refused to provide them


When nuclear engineer Donna Busche was fired in February from her job managing safety at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state, she complained that it was a reprisal for her repeated warnings that the government and its contractors were ignoring serious safety risks there.

Energy Department inspector general Gregory Friedman took the allegations seriously enough to open an investigation after the department asked him to in March. But on Monday, his office announced in an exceptionally brief report that it had been blocked from conducting its work by the refusal of primary Hanford contractor Bechtel National Inc., as well as Bechtel subcontractor and Busche’s employer, URS Energy and Construction Inc., to turn over 4,540 documents.

Those documents included emails that referenced Ms. Busche during the period just before her firing, according to Tara Porter, a spokeswoman for the inspector general.

“We did not have access to the full inventory of documents which we felt were necessary to conduct our review,” wrote Friedman in Monday’s report. “Thus, we were unable to complete our inquiry and accordingly disclaim any opinion regarding the circumstances of Ms. Busche’s termination.”

According to Friedman’s report, the Energy Department’s contracts with Bechtel and between Bechtel and URS require the companies to “produce for government audit all documents acquired or generated under the contract” — even those for which an attorney-client privilege could be asserted. But Bechtel and URS refused to do so because they concluded that releasing the emails would “constitute a waiver of privilege” in future litigation with Busche, and because they felt the contract provisions they signed were unenforceable, his report states.

In a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Monday afternoon, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., noted the failure of Friedman’s office to reach any conclusions and asked the department for a briefing about “DOE’s plans to address the contractors’ lack of cooperation with the Inspector General’s request.” She asked that the information be provided to the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, which she chairs, by the end of October.

Bechtel, in a statement published on its website on Monday, denied that the company had been uncooperative. Bechtel offered to give the inspector general’s office access to legally protected documents “in a way that preserves those protections,” but the inspector general declined that offer, according to the statement.

In response, Porter reiterated that Bechtel “never proposed a process which addressed the legitimate needs of the Office of Inspector General” to access the documents it needed. URS, for its part, only agreed to provide documents that were non-responsive to the inspector general’s needs, according to Friedman’s report.

URS spokeswoman Pamela Blum said in an emailed statement that the company “respects” the inspector general’s decision.” The statement also said Busche’s claim is “without merit” and that each URS employee is “encouraged and empowered to raise concerns about safety.”

In a telephone interview, Busche said she is satisfied that the inspector general tried “diligently” to get the documents. But she said that in her experience, this was “exactly how Bechtel and URS operated at Hanford.”

Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, a nonprofit in Seattle that has assisted Hanford whistleblowers, expressed skepticism about Friedman’s diligence. “They call this a law enforcement agency?” he said. “They’re letting Bechtel and URS fail to comply with an OIG request for information. That’s obstructing justice.” He called Busche the highest-ranking nuclear whistleblower he knows about.

The public affairs office at the Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

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