— Humboldt Bay problems continue; PG&E retaliates against decommissioning expert

The story of Humboldt Bay Nuclear Plant is an expose of PG&E and an expose of nuclear regulation. It’s happening now. Its dangers and warnings are critical for the public to heed.

OSHA & The Cover-up At The PG&E Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Station

Darrell Whitman who was a Federal OSHA investigator and lawyer discusses his investigation at the PG&E nuclear power plant at Humboldt Bay in Northern California. Whitman reports on how OSHA officials refused to defend the whistleblowers and instead allowed them to be retaliated against. Whitman who also became a whistleblower was terminated by top OSHA officials on May 5, 2015 He and his union AFGE Local 2371 are fighting against this retaliation. He was also a shop steward for his AFGE local and many other AFGE workers are being bullied and terrorized by OSHA management for doing their jobs. This interview was done in February 2015.

Unofficial transcript:

My name is Darrell Whitman and I’m at the moment at least an investigator with the US Department of Labor OSHA’s whistleblower protection program here in San Francisco.

As an investigator we are again we handle 22 statutes that are supposed to provide whistleblower protection to everyone from the maid in the hotel to high-level corporate officials who are reporting fraud in corporate fraud and a lot of very technical complaints people as I had and we’ve talked about this before.

I had a high-level official very, very experienced, very highly regarded in the industry who was the safety manager at a major nuclear plant, and he blew the whistle and it was a pretty ugly story.after that,

This was the Humboldt Bay a power plant and this fellow, basically he had come from the Midwest and his expertise was he was in nuclear security, but he also helped Senator Lieberman draft the protocols for decommissioning plants. And so he was he was more than just an expert. He was a very high-value person. And he wanted to apply this new knowledge. So when the opportunity was given to him to come out to Humboldt Bay to the nuclear plant, it was going to be the first nuclear plant actually decommissioned where they were gonna apply the protocols that he had worked on with the Senate, yeah he was very excited about it.

He didn’t know a lot about California. He didn’t know a lot about PG&E. The irony was he came to California thinking, now he’s from Nebraska, he’s a surfer, he had gotten into being a surfer from his early on, and had gone to the Gulf Coast and of course, he heard the best surfing in the country was in California. So in his mind, he was going to be going to a plant that was right on the ocean. So it’s gonna be perfect opportunity to do surfing.

Well, when he got there, he discovered a lot of things. Among other things, he discovered very early on was, the security staff was completely unprepared to do the job. When he actually started vetting them as far as testing their skill levels and their preparation, half of them he had to fire. He had, and nothing against older people, he had a seventy eight year old security guard who could not do a push-up. This is not a good thing. His security guards have to be physically capable of putting, you know. of doing the job. Then shortly after that, he began to discover other things about the culture of the region. You know, we’re talking Humboldt, and he didn’t realize coming from Nebraska what it means to be living in the Green Triangle. So he discovered that there was an awful lot of drug dealing and drug use going on including people in the plant operating centers.

And that of course was – what’s his issue? He’s a security director

So what he also didn’t understand was when PG&E got the agreement with the local area to build the plant in the first place, they had sort of cut a backroom deal which was to employ locals. You know, this is a tricky this is a thing you see commonly with a lot of plants and particularly ones that are potentially dangerous that

They bribe people.

That’s and as a form of bribery will get, will create 500 jobs in your neighborhood. And for a small area in a fairly remote area — Eureka I think has maybe thirty five thousand people — this was a big deal. So people were willing, at least the officials were willing, to overlook the questions because they were going to get jobs.

On the other hand, PG&E was not discriminating in regard to who was getting the jobs. So you were drawing a large portion of the plant operators and not so much the technical operators but the people who were the security people, people who were performing lower-level kinds of jobs coming from the local community, and this is the green traffic, so it was problematic arrangement, let’s put it that way. But among other things he discovered very early on, was that the plant and misplaced fuel rods. They couldn’t account for all the fuel rods. You know, it was just kind of a litany of things like this

That’s pretty serious.

Yes, it is. Yes, it is. Yeah the question was, did they actually lose them or it was just an accounting problem, but in any case, that’s a very serious matter. That’s breach security breach, enormous security breach. Then later he discovered that they had a pond storage area for nuclear fuel rods that was within a hundred feet of a popular hiking trail, and people just didn’t know, I mean, people in the local area just didn’t know.

PG&E is very good at its propaganda campaigns. so they had maintained, you know, a relationship with a lot of the local media with a couple of exceptions to sell the idea that this was good for the area and that there really weren’t problems. And Zane was a problem for them because Zane was a real straight-shooter, Christian, church-going guy — you know the classic Middle American. You know, he’s worked his way up from being a farm boy and in effect got his training, you know, he made the grade. He became an important person in the nuclear industry in the nation. So he’s very proud of that. He had very high professional standards and he was very surprised that PG&E did not have high professional standards.

This is over and over again, the same story. So what happened?

Well, ultimately, he started reporting. He had, he knew people in the NRC Nuclear Regulatory Commission and they come out do a fairly regular audits of these places. And he knew people in the NRC. They knew him because he had a big reputation. And at one point, he got crosswise with PG&E for complaining about them not properly building out the security apparatuses to protect the plant during the decommissioning process. He also discovered that there was a certain amount of shifting of funding going on, and that they were hiring local contractors who were not necessarily qualified to do work. So he kept bringing this up with the plant manager. So what they did is they demoted him. And they promoted his senior aide who he had trained. So of course the senior aide that comes up and becomes the security manager and Zane steps back and he’s no longer the security manager, he’s a Zane 2 – and he can, you know, continue as a process

He was conscientious, too

Yes he same Zane gave him good training and good ethics and good standards to work with even though he was a local boy and he didn’t have a lot of background when he first started working, Zane identified these qualities and I thought they were important and he was someone they could work with. Well ultimately they fired a couple of people in the plant for well it’s not important why the fired except that they had good grounds to fire them, and these two people had connections in the local community. so they went on the warpath to get rid of them. And at the same time, the plant manager obviously was very unhappy. There’s a lot of evidence of retaliation beyond even having him demoted and hostility, animus towards him by plant managers.

Then, they scheduled, the NRC scheduled an audit, and in the context of that audit, I think that the plant manager management hit a panic button because the auditors wanted to talk to Zane and he was no longer. And that raised a lot of questions with the auditors and his junior, the guy who had taken over for him, was very forthcoming and in fact, at the end of the audit, the senior auditor publicly in front of management praised the junior, the guy that took over for Zane, praised him for his candor. and within a 72 hours, he was toast along with Zane.

But I think the real troubling part of the case, this is this is a classic kind of whistleblower case. You know, people report something is serious for whatever reason. Managers don’t like what they’re hearing, they don’t want to hear bad news or they get crosswise with them, you know, professionally in some ways, and they just want to get rid of them. They’re the squeaky wheel, so that’s fairly classic. In the case of PG&E. It was not classic was the way they went after him after they fired him

And how did they go after him?

Well they trashed his reputation. To work in a nuclear plant, you have to have security clearance so they put things into the into the pipeline that said he was dishonest and which was really extraordinary to me. This man is probably the most honest person in the plant, but they put it in the pipeline, you know, in the record. And he had actually gone back to the Midwest to where he started and where is working to accept a position back there, and then as soon as they found out that this information was there, they pulled his license, you see, his credentials, so he couldn’t work in the nuclear industry.

So what do you do if you’re a specialist in the nuclear industry? There’s not a lot of transfer of experience to some other profession.

His career was being ruined,

His career was being ruined and then the people inside the industry a lot of them knew him, respected him, wanted to have him work for them because of his skill sets, and one of the companies involved tried to give him a job and try to help facilitate and get this problem. Well unfortunately they also had some contracts with PG&E, and when PG&E found out they were trying to help him, they canceled the contracts with the company.

So would you say this is a criminal conspiracy to retaliate against people who are protecting health and safety of nuclear plants?

Well I don’t know. I mean that’s. A criminal conspiracy. I don’t think I would say a criminal conspiracy. It certainly is certainly is a pattern. You know, conspiracy is about intent, and it’s hard with a company, big companies, to really identify the decision-makers, and that was true in this case. It’s true in almost every case I have with big companies. The motives behind doing what they do can take a range again from personal animus to the fact that this person is hurting their profits and we’ve got to figure out somehow how to isolate them, how to get rid of them. And I’m not sure that’s a criminal conspiracy. It could be.

Do you think it should be?

I think that

Conspires to retaliate against somebody so they ruin his career

The problem with making it a criminal, I mean ,a blanket kind of criminal thing is you kind of overlook the some of the important details when you do that. And when you have a criminal, the standard of proof in a criminal case is much higher than in a civil case. So there’s a real downside potentially to doing that but you know, in when the idea of OSHA first came up and whistleblower program first came up back at the end of the Johnson administration, the proposal included power for OSHA to go in and shut down companies when they’re in situations like that, when there were repeated offenses. And in fact, I think they did it very early on once or twice. And of course that was not popular with the National Association of Manufacturers. So by the time it came around to the early part of the Nixon administration OSHA, the bill had passed, OSHA was in place and it actually had some teeth here and there, but it was still a very new agency and it really stirred a lot of opposition, so there’s a lot of negotiations went on to weaken OSHA from the beginning. But in the early 1970s, the other thing that happened was, you had the Nixon administration, you had close relationship with business, particularly big business They didn’t like OSHA. They didn’t like anything about OSHA. They want something done. So there was inside, this is the official history that OSHA will printed itself there was an agreement that OSHA would cease to be an aggressive enforcement agency and protect workers and the public, and it would be a collaborative agency which would sit down with companies, and you know, talk through issues, issue standards which they do, they still do. That’s big part of OSHA but they really withdrew from being a critical enforcement agency and that began a culture inside of OSHA that said, Well, whatever Congress says and the laws say, our role is really just to be supporting companies We want to help companies.

We want to help companies. And it got pretty notorious in the 80s under the Reagan administration, because there were companies and it still is notorious in my thinking, there were companies that had where multiple offenders and OSHA had the power you know to fine companies. They supposedly go and investigate, and when they do and establish, they can have five million dollar fines if they want, but what they would do is they would lowball the fines. Then they would sit down and negotiate almost all of it away with the company,get the company to sign on to an agreement, “Well, we’ll do this. We’ll do that. We’ll do this.” But there’s no follow up. And it’s very easy to make an agreement. What’s important is that if the agreements are enforced, then you have, you know, you have a different situation.

Well I think you know my sense of it is, they make a lot of agreements and that’s the end of it. They never follow through. Never, rarely follow through to actually ensure that companies are following the rules.

So you, this was your first case.

This was one of my first cases.

And you and this, he filed an OSHA complaint

Right, And it was dismissed

Why did they dismiss it?

That’s a good question because I recommended it as a merit case.

What’s a merit case mean?

A merit case means I found according to the statute which is the energy reorganization act ERA has the whistleblower provision as and it makes certain standards for doing an investigation. And I felt I’d covered that. And there’s just so much evidence. And in fact, there were two other investigations that were done in the same case came to the same conclusion I did, so I felt like I was joining with other people who had conducted other parts of an investigation and came to the same conclusion.

And there was just huge amounts of evidence of animus, of, you know, reporting these kind of incidents inside of PG&E, inside of the plant. To me, it was a classic whistleblower case. But one of the things that happened during the course of the investigation, and I do this with my private practice that I’ll have always done this, is try to talk to the opposing parties, you know, because you want to get a sense of who knows what. Why? What’s their real intentions? And there’s actually a provisions in our investigative manual for trying to pursue some kind of an early settlement, both so we don’t string it out too long and we give the parties an opportunity to resolve the issue when it’s not going to cost either one of them an arm and a leg. So that was part of my training. It was also part of my professional life was to do that. So I started talking to the attorney for PG&E, and I sent early on,fairly early on after I’d conducted a big part of the investigation and I was coming to conclude that this was a merit case.,I was going to recommend merit.,I sent a summary of my investigation to the attorney for PG&E. And we were actually having some pretty reasonable professional discussions about possibly resolving the case. And it was around Christmas time.

And after Christmas, this attorney disappeared to be replaced by the Wicked Witch of the West.

Who was that?

I don’t know her name. I don’t remember her name but it was a completely different attitude and approach than I had had with the first attorney. And she complained — I thought it was amazing — she complained that I had sent a summary of the investigation to them. Why? She claimed I was pressuring them and threatening them

I thought, well that’s remarkable. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten that from the other attorney and that’s never, I mean, that’s never the intention. You can’t do that and actually come to a credible resolution of anything. You can’t bully people into having a good-faith settlement. I think every parent can realize that. There are consequences to doing that, so you just don’t do that’s unprofessional. But she called up my supervisor and complained about me, and suddenly it was like I was the bad guy, I was the problem, because I was asking, I was doing an investigation, was leading me to the conclusion that PG&E had violated the law. Not allowed, I guess, in the program.

And that’s where I think I began to really understand the problems with the program, that it wasn’t as advertised: we’re not protecting whistleblowers. In fact, you could argue that we are actually protecting the companies from whistleblowers, because in the end, when you don’t protect whistleblowers, people go through these experiences, you know, it gets around a business. Every place that we have this kind of a complaint– I have lots of them — that work place, you’re not going to find anybody else stepping forward to report missing nuclear fuel rods because they don’t want to go through that.

And it’s a, it’s a lesson that they learn not to be a whistleblower.

And what does that mean for the public well at a nuclear plant?

You know, at a nuclear plant, It means we don’t know, which is the worst part of it. And if you have a situation, you know we had a situation down at SONGS San Onofre which turned into quite a fiasco, and they eventually did shut San Onofre but there’s a lot of problems with nuclear plants. And you know probably better than I what the problems are but it’s really clear that as these plants age, they’re going to have problems, and as this case told me, when you have problems and you’re going to close down a nuclear plant, what do you do with it? First of all, it’s expensive and what these companies, these utilities that built them, you know they never factored in the costs of deactivation and maintenance of these plants. It was always, you know, short-term profit over long-term accountability. So as with trying to decommission Humboldt Bay, the fact that PG&E was, I don’t want to say this as a fact I didn’t see the documents, but I certainly heard that money that was earmarked for decommissioning was not necessarily going for decommissioning, plus the way that they were managing the decommissioning didn’t reflect a high level of concern about the public safety.

Obviously if you’ve lost rods, you’re putting spent fuel rods 100 feet from a path, you’re not evidencing much respect for the public interest. Wouldn’t you say allowing, if you’re tolerating a drug culture inside the plant, do you want a stoner running the plant? You know, if you just miss and got the wrong button, you know, this one was red, drat, I hit that one instead. these are the way, this is the way that accidents happen. And the history is gonna

This could be catastrophic.

Oh absolutely, absolutely. I had nightmares about the situation for a while because my daughter’s, one of her best friends, was going to Humboldt State University which was about 10 miles downwind of the nuclear plant. And I’m thinking, a lot of people up there they don’t know what this plant is, particularly if they, they’re fairly recent residents, the university people, they’re kind of insulated from what’s the reality of where they live and what’s going on around them. And to know that this plant was sitting there, being mismanaged at this level and knowing that I have personal friends that could potentially be at risk, it does give you nightmares. You know, it’s something, one of those things, that you can’t, you can’t, you can’t bring it back. You know, if they had a serious accident, a serious release, ten miles is not very far. And particularly in that neighborhood where there’s pretty persistent southwest winds would carry the material very quickly over to Arcata or certainly into Eureka, and all those people would be a risk

And under those circumstances, why did the government agencies decide to go along with PG&E in covering this up?

Well, I’m not sure I would say covering it up. They didn’t want to uncover it. It’s part of, part of it is that culture from the 70s which is, we don’t confront particularly big companies; we work with them. And there’s a whole litany of cases I can cite where this has happened.

West Texas. you know. the fertilizer plant that blew up. That was under the responsibility of OSHA to review that plan on a regular basis and ensure that it wasn’t in violation of the law. Well, the storage of the fertilizer at that at West Texas was like four or five times beyond the level that was approved. It was a, it was a ticking time bomb and it went off.

This was federal OSHA .

This is federal OSHA. Actually

why wasn’t federal OSHA doing the inspections of it.

Well, they did every 25 years. The Dallas Morning Herald did a great story about it if anybody wants to, look up West Texas and Dallas Morning Herald. And they pointed to a lot of failures that led up to that explosion. And one of them, of course, is OSHA wasn’t there. They weren’t there for 25 years. And OSHA will say, what we didn’t have the resources to go down and look at this plan. But there’s a lot of, there’s according to the Dallas, to the story in the Dallas Morning Herald that there are other factors.

Senator Obama blocked, when he was a senator in Illinois, he was taking money from this industry, and he blocked the kind of regulation that would have forced more oversight and stronger controls over these storage plants. So I mean he has his fingers in this, too, and when he went to the memorial of these people, yeah that plant in the community that was right right. he didn’t mention that federal OSHA was responsible.

I know I know

Was that a mistake or?

No no I don’t think there’s ever a mistake in politics. And you know in fairness, he, I don’t think he necessarily sit there in 2006 or 2004, whatever it was, and said, oh I’m gonna, you know, I’m gonna defeat this bill because I want West Texas to blow up, but it’s the idea of big money in politics and politicians who take money from these kinds of companies and these kinds of associations, they’re compromising the public interest. And one of the interests of the public is health and safety. you know

And protecting workers.

And protecting workers.

And that was what your job was.

That was my job.