TRI-CITIES — A settlement has been reached in the case of a whistleblower who said he lost his job at the Hanford vitrification plant when he raised safety concerns.
Millwright Walter Ford filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2018 against Bechtel National, the contractor building the $17 billion plant, and Aecom, the primary subcontractor.
The parties declined to comment on the settlement other than to say that all parties had reached a satisfactory resolution of the case. Details of the agreement were not released nor were they included in court documents.
In 2015, the Department of Labor had ruled that Ford’s role as a whistleblower during his 35 years at the Hanford nuclear reservation contributed to the decision to lay him off in November 2011.
About that time, there were widespread layoffs across the project because construction on the vitrification plant’s Pretreatment Plant had been halted in 2011 due to technical issues.
However, the Department of Labor found in 2015 that Ford “was scrutinized and treated more harshly than other employees.”
It ordered that Ford be paid back wages, attorney fees and $25,000. Bechtel objected. But before the issue was resolved, the administrative law judge who had ruled on the issue resigned.
Rather than go through a Department of Labor hearing again, Ford sued in federal court in 2018, his attorney Nikolas Peterson of Hanford Challenge said when the case was filed.
When Ford worked for former Hanford contractor Fluor Hanford at the K Basin spent fuel project in the early 2000s, he had reported safety concerns and testified in support of his supervisor in an investigation, which found in favor of the supervisor.
That supervisor had challenged a decision to operate a crane that was moving radioactive spent fuel despite a warning that its brakes might fail.
At the vitrification plant, Ford reported other incidents, including one in which a worker tried to eject another employee from a golf cart, injuring her, according to court documents.
He reported another “horseplay” incident in which the same worker dropped a large brass hook 30 feet landing beside an employee, according to court documents.
When Ford refused to skip detailed steps in written plans for specific work, an “increasingly hostile manager” assigned other workers to do the work, according to court documents.
In the federal lawsuit, Ford had asked for lost wages and at least $500,000 for emotional distress. He also wanted an end to “the hostile working environment.”
In court documents, Aecom said that care had been taken to prevent any discriminatory or retaliatory action and also pointed out that the layoff occurred before Aecom purchased URS. Ford said URS and Bechtel were his joint employers.
Bechtel also denied in court documents that it discriminated against Ford. When the case was filed, Bechtel told the Tri-City Herald that it takes all employees’ questions and issues seriously and has a zero-tolerance policy for workplace retaliation or discrimination.