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Cooperate or keep quiet? Piketon workers confused
Wednesday, January 12, 2000
As federal investigators dig into allegations of health and safety problems at southern Ohio's uranium-enrichment plant, any chill in the air isn't coming just from January winds.
It stems from a pair of meetings called last Wednesday by Bechtel Jacobs, the company in charge of cleaning up the grounds at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon.
About 150 employees attended, and the message many took away was to "look busy and shut your mouth,'' said Dan Minter, president of the Paper-Allied Chemical and Energy Workers union, which represents many of them.
Bechtel Jacobs called more meetings Friday to assure employees that they should cooperate with the investigation, and company officials said yesterday that the earlier comments were misinterpreted.
Nevertheless, some employees say the damage already has been done.
The fallout: Workers are wondering whether they should keep silent about past and current safety problems, and an outraged U.S. secretary of energy is vowing to wage an independent and credible investigation.
Minter -- who was not at the meetings but received reports from workers -- and a person who attended one of the meetings said employees were told to discuss with investigators only matters they could document or of which they had firsthand knowledge.
They also were told to inform company management about the type of information sought by investigators -- a request Bechtel Jacobs has since rescinded.
The message was delivered five days before Energy Department investigators arrived to look into whether Cold War-era plant conditions endangered workers and whether cleanup efforts are being run safely. Department officials hope to interview nearly 200 current or former employees.
The investigation will help determine whether workers exposed to radioactive contaminants such as plutonium and highly toxic chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid will be compensated for any cancers or other diseases.
Joseph Nemec, Bechtel Jacobs' president, acknowledged the concerns raised by Energy Department officials and Piketon workers, but denied any attempt to obstruct the investigation.
"Clearly, there appears to be some people involved in the first meeting that came away from it with the impression we were trying to dictate what they could do and not do,'' Nemec said. "That was not our intent. It was not intended to stifle employees from cooperating fully.''
Jim King, the company's Portsmouth site manager, said that comments he made to workers about not speculating or going outside their areas of expertise might have been misunderstood. He said he told employees to be cooperative.
Many who attended the meetings, however, left thinking that cooperation wasn't the theme of the day, said the employee who was present, who asked not to be identified.
"I don't know how you de-chill something that's been chilled,'' the worker said. "Workers know what's been said. I don't know how you're going to retract it.''
Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, described as furious at Bechtel's conduct, fired off a letter to Nemec on Monday.
"I am writing to express my deep concern that . . . Bechtel Jacobs management may have discouraged workers' full and free participation in an investigation by the department's oversight team,'' the letter said.
"It is the department's policy, and my belief, that the independence and credibility of a comprehensive investigation are essential to the safe conduct of operations and to the protection of workers, the public and the environment.''
G. Leah Dever, who oversees the plant for the Energy Department, sent a letter to Nemec and King on Monday, chiding them about the meetings. Dever also sent a memo to employees -- dated Sunday -- asking for their full cooperation.
"Workers should feel free to participate in these interviews openly,'' she wrote. "Any attempt to limit or restrict the conduct of these interviews will not be tolerated and will have serious consequences.''
Of the about 2,400 workers at the plant, which produces commercial- grade enriched uranium for use as fuel for nuclear-power plants, Bechtel employs about 85 of its own people and about 100 subcontractors in the effort to clean up contaminated soil and buildings no longer used on the 3,700-acre grounds. The other employees work for USEC, the plant operator.
About 70 USEC employees are on temporary assignment to help with the cleanup, and some of them might have attended the meetings.
"We have encouraged our employees to be cooperative with the Department of Energy,'' said Elizabeth Stuckle, spokeswoman for USEC, the privatized federal corporation formerly called United States Enrichment Corp. that took over enrichment operations in 1993.
During the Cold War, the plant produced highly enriched weapons-grade uranium. In addition to reportedly shoddy working conditions that for years regularly exposed workers to uranium and highly toxic chemicals, deadly plutonium and related highly radioactive materials were introduced into the plant -- apparently during the 1950s, '60s and '70s as part of a government attempt to recycle spent nuclear-reactor fuel.
Many of the current Bechtel Jacobs workers worked in the enrichment plant 20-30 years ago, said Minter, the union chief. Their institutional knowledge can be culled to help determine what happened back then, he said.
The investigation also is meant to scrutinize the safety of Bechtel Jacobs' cleanup effort. The company's cleanup operations at a sister plant in Paducah, Ky., were criticized during a similar Energy Department investigation of that facility.
Bechtel Jacobs officials told The Dispatch recently that they were confident the Piketon investigation would reveal no significant problems. King, the company's site manager, said he stressed to workers that anything they say about past events at the plant is between them and the investigators.
But Richard Miller, a Washington-based analyst for Minter's union, said Bechtel has sent the wrong signals just as the Energy Department is trying to rectify past misdeeds.
"You hope it doesn't chill people's willingness to be candid because the signal had been sent up to this point that it's OK to talk about what had historically been forbidden,'' Miller said. "And the information that's going to be developed in this investigation is so central to whether or not there will be a fair and equitable remedy for the workers that you hate to see defensive managers try to cover up sins of the past.''
Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch