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    Piketon workers suspicious, and rightly so

    Monday, January 17, 2000

    If mistakes are good for nothing else, they should at least be learned from. Past transgressions -- or just plain bad policies -- can be lessons for how to improve and what actions to avoid.

    Why some misguided souls and institutions choose instead to repeat wrong and foolish behavior is beyond understanding.

    A case in point involves the cleaning of the grounds at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, for which the company Bechtel Jacobs was hired. During the Cold War, the plant produced highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium, to which employees were exposed for years.

    Between the 1950s and 1970s, without workers' knowledge, deadly plutonium and other highly radioactive materials were introduced into the plant as part of an attempt to recycle spent nuclear-reactor fuel. At the time, the government claimed uranium-processing plants were safe work environments, even while knowing workers were handling extremely hazardous substances.

    Now, in a small attempt to make up for this past secrecy, which is thought to have cost many former workers their lives and health, government officials have agreed to provide medical screenings for current and former Portsmouth workers, many of whom have lost colleagues to cancer and other ailments.

    They also are investigating the current cleanup effort to make sure problems of the past won't continue to be problems. But in recent meetings with Bechtel Jacobs, some workers felt they were told, in effect, to "look busy and shut your mouth.'' They were told to inform company management about the types of information sought by investigators, a request Bechtel Jacobs has since rescinded.

    Bechtel Jacobs scheduled more meetings two days later to assure employees that they should cooperate with the investigation, but the damage was done. Workers who are understandably suspicious and bitter over past secrecy felt they were being asked to contribute to further secrecy over matters that could affect their health.

    Maybe Bechtel Jacobs did not intend to sound threatening in telling employees to discuss with investigators only matters they could document or of which they had firsthand knowledge. Maybe the company didn't mean to give the impression that workers should stay silent about safety problems at the plant. But it did. And in so doing, Bechtel Jacobs has earned the distrust of workers and the wrath of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who has vowed to wage an independent and credible investigation.

    Which all serves to illustrate the importance of engaging brain before opening mouth. And of learning, whenever possible, to avoid repeating errors.


    Copyright © 2000, The Columbus Dispatch