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00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Hanford Contractors Defend Worksite Culture, Scrutinize Whistleblower

Anna King
Northwest News Network
File photo of part of Hanford's Waste Treatment Plant being built outside Richland, Wash.

Higher-level managers for major Hanford contractors testified in a three-day U.S. Department of Labor hearing this week. The case is over the layoff of a whistleblower at the southwest Washington nuclear site’s under-construction waste treatment plan.

The massive Hanford Waste Treatment Plant is supposed to treat millions of gallons of radioactive sludge. It has seen huge technical problems and delays.

Lawyers for whistleblower Walt Ford argued that his managers played dangerous and unsanitary pranks. Workers were injured.

Companies Bechtel and URS argued that managers and workers only played harmless pranks. They also focused on the whistleblower’s personal life and mistakes on the job: Like that Ford was going through a divorce at the time and he used the household cleaner Simple Green when he wasn’t supposed to.

Ford’s team of lawyers countered that Simple Green was used a lot by other workers at the time Ford was employed at the waste treatment plant.

Witnesses also said Ford was a by-the-book kind of guy, called “Mr. Clean Jeans,” and always presentable. Some witnesses said Ford never played pranks like his managers, or slept in safety meetings, although lots of other workers did and didn’t get in trouble for it.

Ford’s lawyers also contend he lost his family home in Pasco and underwent severe emotional and financial distress when he lost his position at the waste treatment plant.

Bechtel and URS said that layoffs at the Waste Treatment Plant happen regularly, and many workers were laid off at that same time.

The U.S. Department of Labor found last year that Ford lost his job unfairly in 2011 for raising safety concerns while working at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, and since then, that he’s been blacklisted from other jobs. The current hearing would determine a financial award.

A Labor Department judge will review the week's testimony and a huge binder full of evidence.


Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.