MINDING THE STORE
The days should be getting sunnier for anyone living downwind of Rocky Flats. The Department of Energy facility is officially out of the nuclear-weapons business. Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary has promised the plant's dark secrets will be dragged into the light. And the federal government seems serious about cleaning up four decades of environmental misadventures at the plant site sixteen miles northwest of Denver.
But there's a cloud where the silver lining should be: Rocky Flats workers allege that mismanagement by their employer, plant operator EG&G Inc., has made the facility more dangerous today than it was in the Cold War years, when safety was subordinated to the production of nuclear-bomb triggers. Those allegations are bolstered by internal company documents that detail alarmingly deteriorated conditions in buildings containing plutonium, the deadly radioactive element used to make nuclear weapons.
Officials at EG&G and DOE deny that there are "imminent" safety problems in any of the plant's 22 production and storage buildings. However, reports written by troubleshooters hired by EG&G specifically for their expertise in nuclear safety and technology warn that neglected maintenance has compromised safety procedures and systems--and in the case of one building that handled the bulk of plutonium processing throughout the plant's history, has created "a significant health, safety, and economic hazard!"
Harry Mann, EG&G's general manager for Rocky Flats, touts the "mentor program," which he describes as a model for DOE facilities around the country. Under the mentor project, the company recruits nuclear experts from the U.S. Navy and the nuclear-power industry to consult on plant operations. Yet Mann discounts at least two critical reports written by those experts, claiming that the "mentors" are applying overly rigorous standards to conditions at the plant. "Frankly, we have not matured to that level," says Mann.
Safety recommendations made by staff outside the mentor program have fared little better. Improperly stored radioactive materials described as "ticking timebombs" in an infamous report by one building manager a year and a half ago--bomb parts and liquid plutonium waste, among other items--are apparently still being kept in conditions that don't meet DOE safety rules.
Making matters worse, the safety concerns are set against a backdrop of continuing labor unrest at the plant. The United Steelworkers of America, which represents 1,800 EG&G hourly workers, charges that the company is bent on busting the union. As evidence, the union points to EG&G's practice of subcontracting out work and transferring hourly workers to nonunion salaried positions.
Those actions are reducing plant safety, union officials claim, by circumventing a labor agreement that permits workers to refuse work that they believe is dangerous or violates safety procedures. The union charges appear to be supported by company reports detailing safety violations by subcontractors engaged in environmental cleanup work--including one firm whose employees were written up repeatedly for failing to wear proper protective clothing. Though EG&G has recently taken action at DOE's direction to improve compliance, union officials say some subcontractors continue to ignore safety rules.
The energy department itself has cited numerous problems with EG&G's safety program. According to the government's site manager, Mark Silverman, the company has failed to properly emphasize safety to its managers and work force, and has been lax about taking precautions to avoid "criticality incidents"--potentially fatal but localized releases of radiation caused by the improper clustering of nuclear materials.
In an unconventional critique sent to EG&G senior vice-president Jim Zane last March, Silverman found the company wanting in nearly every facet of the plant's operation. Citing a pattern of failure and neglect, his letter said EG&G had made "little improvement" since December, when DOE withheld the company's performance bonus--an action unprecedented in the plant's 41-year history, which has been characterized by chummy relations between the government and plant operators.
An experienced DOE manager who spent five years as second-in-command at the agency's large Savannah River facility in South Carolina, Silverman says he considers himself from "the green side" of DOE. He spent much of his career administrating renewable energy programs for the government, and sounds genuinely excited by the task of cleaning up the toxic remnants of America's nuclear-weapons program. "I feel my whole career has been building to this job," he says.
Oddly enough, EG&G executives sounded equally buoyant this spring after receiving Silverman's memo. They thanked him for his openness and candor, spoke energetically of "reviewing and identifying improvements" and promised to "meet or exceed [his] expectations."
EG&G's first action in response to Silverman's criticism was swift, if predictable. As was the case in the fall of 1990, the helter-skelter first year of its contract at Rocky Flats, the company dispatched Jim Zane to the scene. A forceful personality, Zane reviewed Silverman's claims of inefficiency, incompetence, waste and inertia. In a written response, he pronounced about half of them valid, but branded the rest as "subjective" or "not entirely factual." More important, he concluded that there were no "system wide" problems at Rocky Flats--a direct contradiction of Silverman's findings.
Harry Mann responded only slightly less defensively. Though Silverman's March memo reiterated charges he'd made in December about EG&G's boondoggling ways with government money, Mann countered that such inefficiencies were largely history. "We initiated action plans to address specifically the deficiencies he identified in his letter of December," Mann tells Westword, adding that rather than wasting taxpayer funds, his staff has actually saved DOE $60 million over the past eighteen months.
But the plant's overall budget has soared, not shrunk, under EG&G's stewardship. The budget has climbed from $437 million in 1989, when Rockwell International's contract as managing contractor was canceled, to this year's figure of $823 million. Mann attributes the increases to the plant's change in mission from weapons production to environmental cleanup. Silverman, however, contends that too little work is being done for the money.
Silverman also has found the company's safety performance lacking. His March letter to EG&G listed numerous references to criticality safety, and generally painted a portrait of the company as a corporate Homer Simpson asnooze at the switch. But Silverman says the energy department's official position is that there are no "imminent safety problems" at the plant. "We have, I believe, manageable safety concerns," he says. "None of them at this time--knock on wood--are imminent." The bottom line on EG&G, he says, is that "they need to do better than they are doing."
Zane says EG&G has made "substantial, steady improvement during the last three years" in its safety programs, and Mann extolls the company's commitment to maintaining the "safety envelope" of plant facilities, particularly buildings containing plutonium and other fissile material.
EG&G is managing the plant well enough, says Silverman, that "I don't lose a lot of sleep every night worrying whether we're going to have a criticality incident. I worry about it, but I don't lose any sleep over it."
When Rockwell's tenure at Rocky Flats ended in 1989 after a dramatic raid by FBI agents, EG&G took the reins with the energy department's full blessing. The company, after all, was nothing if not experienced in pleasing the Department of Energy. It already held contracts at several DOE facilities, including two--the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory and the so-called Mound Plant, in Miamisburg, Ohio--with a history of nuclear weapons work.
At Rocky Flats, however, it hasn't taken long for that cozy relationship to deteriorate. Eighteen months ago, for instance, an EG&G manager in Building 779 issued a well-publicized memo identifying nine potentially dangerous cases of improper storage of nuclear material. He titled the document "Items of Concern, Or Ticking Timebombs."
R.J. Ballenger didn't mean to suggest a nuclear explosion was imminent. He was worried about two other dangers: a criticality incident or a fire. Either can result from less than diligent handling of plutonium or other fissile material. Plutonium is pyrophoric, meaning it can spontaneously ignite. That ominous capacity has caused three major fires in the plant's history and perhaps as many as 150 minor blazes.
In his memo, Ballenger noted that when plutonium operations were halted at Rocky Flats in November 1989, personnel assumed it was a temporary curtailment. Fissile material in a variety of forms was left in short-term storage conditions in Building 779, where plutonium research and development was being conducted.
Today, the situation hasn't changed. Plutonium bomb parts, which had been packaged inadequately for three to seven years at the time of Ballenger's memo, sit there still, open to mishaps. DOE spokeswoman Beth Brainard-Jordan says an "action plan" has been developed for the transfer and storage of the material, but adds that the plan has yet to be implemented.
Workers say Ballenger was dressed down by superiors for his use of the phrase "Ticking Timebombs." EG&G spokeswoman Ellen Murray denies those reports, and notes that Ballenger remains in his job.
Concerns about safety procedures such as the situation Ballenger detailed in his memo were one reason the company began its highly touted mentor program. "To get our employees and supervisors to understand the new, disciplined, procedure-driven operation that we needed to put in place to operate a high hazard facility like this, we brought in some people who had extensive experience either in the Navy nuclear program or the civilian nuclear program," explains Mann. "The idea was to bring those individuals in and assign them to facilities to help instill the new processes, the policies, to help the building managers train the workers in the new way of doing business."
Informed that a mentor report on Building 771, the main plutonium operations building throughout much of the plant's history, found numerous safety deficiencies related to neglected maintenance, Mann is untroubled. Mentor reports are, of course, only opinions, he notes--opinions that come from men whose standards tend to be inappropriately high for Rocky Flats. He says he isn't disturbed by senior mentor F.B. Lord's description of "the overall, steady deterioration of the building and its inner systems," including "the basic safety envelope systems."
"I will tell you that every building on this plant site has sufficient maintenance money in it to maintain it in a safe condition," Mann replies. Neither is he ruffled by Lord's concerns about aging tanks and piping systems that hold corrosive liquids laden with plutonium. Arguing for preventive maintenance, Lord's report invokes "the old Fram oil-filter commercial: `You can pay me now or pay me later.'"
The government and EG&G have taken great pains to install procedures designed to improve plant safety. But many workers say those bureaucratic measures do little to address the true hazards at Rocky Flats.
In 1991 DOE and EG&G created a system requiring workers to do every task strictly by the book, a procedural manual written by white-collar staffers. The idea was to eliminate human error. The shakedown period for the Integrated Work Control Package system, however, continues to this day.
Workers despise the program for its minutiae, which includes lengthy instructions for such tasks as tightening bolts. The cumbersome procedures are often written by office personnel who've never been in the building where the task needs to be done, says Dave Navarro, an alarm technician and union member. "It takes two years for new personnel to get security clearance to go in some of these buildings," he says. While they wait, he says, they work, turning out procedural instructions that sometimes stop projects before they start.
In one case, a crew of eight workers was assembled on a Sunday at double-time wages to drill holes in a wall on the second floor of Building 771, recounts Dennis Wise, president of the steelworkers' local. When the crew made its way to the work site, it found that the wall was a fire barrier. On it were lettered instructions ordering that the wall not be tampered with until the fire department had been consulted. The person who wrote the work package had never seen the wall, says Wise, and no crew member thought to make arrangements with the fire department. Net result: wasted time and money.
Both DOE's Silverman and EG&G's Mann maintain that the work-control package encourages discipline and uniformity that are required when dealing with hazardous materials. And the system is working much better now, they say. Changing a lightbulb--in one notorious incident, 43 personnel and 1,000 man-hours were needed--now requires only one worker and a single hour of time, says Mann.
Wise disputes that the work package program has improved that much, but acknowledges that things are running more smoothly after some recent streamlining by EG&G.
In the meantime, the strict procedural requirements have added to a huge backlog of work orders in almost every "hot" building (those that contain radioactive waste or other fissile material). According to a report earlier this year by senior mentor F.H. Davidson, Building 371 has a backlog of over 1,400 maintenance jobs. "Nearly every back-up system in the building is deteriorated or inoperable," Davidson found. Due to insufficient budget allocations, problems in the building can't be taken care of this year, he concluded.
Harry Mann says the work-order backlogs aren't as worrisome as they may appear. "Some of the items will never get fixed, because they're not safety issues and the building is not going to be used again," he says. Yet according to the DOE's Brainard-Jordan, Building 371 is slated to be a "key player" in the plant's future, serving as the prime storage facility for what is known as "special nuclear material," the most concentrated and potent of fissile materials kept at Rocky Flats.
Brainard-Jordan says frustration with the work package system has contributed to friction between hourly workers and the plant's managers and other salaried employees. Blue-collar veterans often view managers as "rookies," who in turn see hourly workers as uncooperative in implementing the program.
In fact, many of the white-collar employees are relative newcomers to the nuclear industry. EG&G's acquisition of the Rocky Flats contract in January 1990, came on the heels of a 1988 contract to operate DOE's Mound Facility in Ohio. The sudden expansion put a heavy strain on the company's managerial staff. By the end of the Eighties, says Phua Young, a research analyst with the Lehman Brothers investment bank in New York, EG&G was shifting away from dependence on government contract work to concentrate on commercial products such as precision electronic instruments.
But Rockwell's ouster--and DOE's solicitation of EG&G to take over Rocky Flats--caught the corporation not fully prepared. "They probably had personnel at appropriate levels" prior to accepting the $4 billion contract for Rocky Flats, says Young. When the unexpected bonanza came EG&G's way, however, new management material had to be rapidly recruited. A massive infusion of college-educated but marginally experienced personnel followed, Young suggests.
Newly hired salaried employees and subcontractor workers--who tend to be a transient work force--are often ignorant about the history of the plant and its toxic mishaps, union president Dennis Wise maintains. "They'll have no idea what they're going to get into when they try to clean up these buildings," he predicts, "because the company is getting rid of the people who know what's there."
Wise points to an incident detailed in an EG&G memo last year. According to the report, one winter morning in 1993 waste solidification coordinator Mark Ries escorted two visitors from the Nevada Test Site to a contaminated area known as the "904 pad." Ries had received all the safety training necessary to be allowed in the area, where the worst of the contaminated ground is protected by tents and hard-walled structures called "Permacons."
Ries and his guests entered Tent 10, which housed a Permacon. Though the door to the Permacon is posted with six warning signs, including a radiological control sign prohibiting entry without respirators and protective clothing, Ries opened it and entered along with one of the visitors. When an hourly employee shouted a warning, the two men quickly retreated. According to the report, Ries explained he thought he was in a tent with a "cold" Permacon. Then he and the visitors committed an additional safety violation by leaving the area and making their way to the office of the pad foreman, in all probability spreading contaminated dirt on their shoes to other areas. According to the report, testing revealed alpha radiation contamination (typically associated with the presence of plutonium) in the mouth and nose of each individual.
Rocky Flats is undergoing a dramatic downsizing, a reflection of its new peacetime mission. The plant's employee population should drop from about 7,300 workers presently to around 5,000 over the next several years. And plant figures show that under EG&G, salaried positions have increased from around 2,800 to over 4,500--while union jobs have fallen from 2,500 to 1,800.
Many steelworkers are convinced the new crop of managers resent the blue-collar workers' familiarity with Rocky Flats and its history. The union contends that that may be one reason EG&G is subcontracting out large amounts of work. Just as damaging to hourly workers, says Wise, is the company's practice of shifting union members from their present positions to nonunion salaried jobs.
EG&G's Mann says the growth of salaried positions and the accompanying slide in union jobs is a natural consequence of the plant's new priorities. Large numbers of salaried professionals are required to do tasks such as project planning and site investigative work, he says. But blue-collar workers will still be needed for the physical labor involved in decontamination and decommissioning work, the bulk of which is yet to come, Mann adds.
If DOE and EG&G continue their current contracting trends, however, many of those blue-collar jobs will go to subcontracted laborers. For primarily economic reasons, the government is moving away from its policy of using a single company with a large unionized work force to undertake the cleanup of facilities such as Rocky Flats. Instead, a number of companies, each specializing in a particular kind of work, will be brought in, Silverman suggests. That policy is still evolving, he says, at Rocky Flats, where the management contract with EG&G expires at the end of 1995. But it's likely that subcontractors will have to have smaller, nonunionized staffs to successfully compete for DOE contracts.
"I don't believe anything we're doing is intended to imply that we're trying to eliminate a union from the site," Silverman says. "We have an obligation, though, to spend our money more cost-effectively than we have been. If we can break up the contract and break up the work to be done at the site into smaller pieces without the kind of overhead that goes with a single contractor, then we have an obligation to look at that."
Harry Mann emphatically denies that EG&G has any desire to oust the union. "They're going to be here until the last building is done because they're the people who understand what the work requirements are and how to do it," he insists.
Were the union to go at Rocky Flats, says Wise, many of the plant's built-in safety features would go with it. Gone would be the steelworkers' labor agreement (now under negotiation and, for all intents and purposes, in limbo), which allows workers to refuse work they consider unsafe. Gone too would be shop stewards, grievance committees and the entire organized structure that now allows workers to take issue with management over discipline and safety issues.
Currently, says Wise, trainers at Rocky Flats tell workers to challenge supervisors when safety procedures are being bypassed or work is otherwise unsafe. But those who do so, he says, have been threatened with insubordination, a charge that is grounds for firing.
About eighteen months ago, says Wise, radiological control technician Steve Cox took issue with supervisors conducting a criticality incident evacuation drill in a building in the 700 complex. Cox contended that all personnel should leave the building during the drill, as required by safety procedures. Supervisors wanted to exempt those in a break room from the exercise. When Cox insisted the drill be halted until they complied with procedures, the supervisors allegedly accused him of insubordination, suspended him without pay for five days and had him escorted from the plant site.
EG&G's Harry Mann concedes that workers have on occasion been disciplined or escorted off the site for refusing to do work they consider unsafe. "But we've trained our supervisors to understand that the union workers have a right to identify safety issues," he says. "We want them to have that right, if they think they're being put in an unsafe position, to stop the work."
A possible precursor of what lies in store for union workers at Rocky Flats may be found in recent developments at the Mound Plant in Ohio. A cleanup of radioactively contaminated buildings and ground has been going on at the Mound Plant since the 1970s. In 1988 EG&G took over management of the facility from Monsanto; soon after, labor relations deteriorated to the point that a strike occurred.
"EG&G has always subbed out a lot of work at Mound," says Jim Turner, president of the Miamisburg chapter of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. The OCAW tried without success to prevent the company from contracting away work previously done by the union. As subcontracting increased, union membership declined. In the last four years, union ranks have been reduced by 45 percent, Turner says.
"The contractors they bring in here are not qualified to do the work," adds James Jefferies, a regional OCAW official based in Ohio. "They don't know the procedures. A lot of the time they don't know what [hazardous wastes] they're working with. They don't adhere to the safety rules and regulations as much as our people do."
Jefferies alleges that EG&G is also using subcontractors to escape legal and financial liability, which can be considerable when working with radioactive wastes. "If something bad happens, they can say, `Don't blame us, blame the subcontractor,'" he says.
In a written response sent to Westword, EG&G denies the charge. "Decisions to subcontract are based on a variety of reasons such as scheduling, inhouse resources and special expertise required" for certain work, says the statement.
Labor relations are no better in Idaho Falls, where EG&G is the prime operating contractor at DOE's Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. There the company has shown "an unwillingness to settle even the simplest issues, even in the presence of clear contract language," says Julie Holzer, a representative with OCAW. She notes the company has historically had "a deaf-ear attitude" toward workers. The Idaho facility's nuclear reactor has been run by union members for more than thirty years, says Holzer, but EG&G is attempting to force out the unionized reactor operators and replace them with inexperienced hourly workers. Negotiations on the issue have reached an impasse.
Mann says EG&G "enjoys working with" the union at Rocky Flats, and "works intimately" with labor groups across the country. EG&G isn't "doing a good enough job" getting out and talking to workers in the field at Rocky Flats, he acknowledges. "I want to hear what the people have to say," he says. "There's no doubt in my mind that the people on the floor know where the problems are, and more important, they know what the solutions are." And prodded by DOE, the company has made recent overtures to improve its relationship with the steelworkers.
But Wise remains unconvinced. EG&G "has no credibility," he says, in either labor relations or safety issues. The company "does not have the ability to manage that facility," he says. "The buildings are a flat-ass mess. We're sitting on a powder keg at Rocky Flats.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.