The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, October 04, 2003

Nuclear whistleblowers loss of protection feared
Paducah and Metropolis plants' workers would be affected by changes in a House bill, a watchdog group claims.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

A draft energy bill has been stripped of House whistleblower protection for federal nuclear workers and makes private-sector workers wait 18 months before seeking court protection, a Washington-based watchdog group says.

But a spokeswoman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said the changes balance the rights of employers and employees, and prevent companies from repeatedly getting tax-paid appeals of lost cases.

The Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower organization, has written members of the Energy Conference Committee asking for fair and equitable protection of as many as 130,000 nuclear workers nationwide. Among them are roughly 2,000 employees of nuclear fuel-cycle plants in Paducah and Metropolis, Ill., and Paducah plant cleanup contractors.

The Justice Department has joined a whistleblower lawsuit alleging former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant operator Lockheed Martin Corp. filed false documents to cover up contamination at the plant. The suit seeks to recover more than $100 million the federal government paid to Lockheed based on claims that the reports filed were false.

Under a new House amendment sought by the accountability project, Energy Department workers were given court relief within six months if they were fired, retaliated against or otherwise harassed by their employer for exposing waste, fraud or abuse in their workplace. But "a backroom deal" in conference canceled that provision and added the 18-month waiting period for private-sector workers, said Tom Devine, project legal director.

"When you consider the pork we now see stuffed in the draft conference report, it's ironic that there are no rights for government workers who protect and serve at DOE facilities around the country," he said. "What kind of energy bill skips legal rights for those who have to enforce the energy laws?"

Devine said the waiting period "is the employment version of making Medicare available for patients who have already died." There is no provision for reinstatement or other relief during the 18 months, which means whistleblowers must deal with unemployment, he said.

The bill "is a dramatic improvement" over current law, said Marnie Funk, communications director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "Under this provision, lab employees can go to court after 18 months. The way the law is now, they can’t go to court at all."

She said the change allows contractors and labs to lose only once to whistleblowers and still get their legal fees reimbursed.

"If they appeal and lose again, they’re on their own. They have to pay their own costs," she said. "But the way the law is now, labs and contractors can appeal indefinitely — drive whistleblowers into bankruptcy — and the taxpayers pick up the cost."

Sen. Pete Domenici, committee chairman, is talking with senators and representatives about the provision, Funk said. "I know (the accountability project) will want more. But this is already a very big step in their direction. It balances the interests of the laboratories and the whistleblowers."